I recently spent 20 minutes with one remarkable individual after the next as fellow judges and I assessed finalists in SAICA’s Top 35-Under-35 chartered accountants for  2017. Though varying evaluation criteria guided the process, one metric stood out for me: integrity.

I often reflect on the challenges facing South Africa’s leadership at present and the excellent and ongoing discussions on many social, corporate and political fronts aimed at reorienting us to the North Star that is honour and integrity, to be celebrated and lived by all South Africans.

If you’re as fascinated with behavioural economics as I am, then you too may follow Dan Ariely – Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University in North Carolina. He’s long been involved in thought-provoking research into factors that drive human choices.

‘Ethics is like health and therefore something we need to invest in, monitor, be mindful of and continuously consider – as individuals and as a community,’ says Professor Ariely. ‘If we only exercised once a year, it would not be helpful. So how can we make ethics a more salient part of our day-to-day?’

How would you fare in a simple experiment designed by Ariely to test honesty? Over 40 000 people from all walks of life participated in his so-called matrix experiments, one of which asked people to solve 20 simple math problems – find two numbers in a matrix that add up to 10. Simple enough? But what if you’re given very little time before being asked to stop? You’re asked to write the number solved correctly on a piece of paper and receive $1 for each problem you claim to have solved correctly. Your test paper goes into a shredder, so nobody knows the truth. What subjects in the experiment didn’t realise was that Ariely and his team had modified the shredder to retain the body of the page.

On average, people solved four problems but reported solving six. Nearly 70% cheated. Only 20 out of the 40 000 were ‘big cheaters’ who claimed to have solved all 20 problems. They cost the experiment $400. More than 28 000 ‘little cheaters’ cost the experiment $50 000 with incredibly high economic impact.

You see, it all comes down the choices you make in your role at work and in other areas of life. These feed the network that surrounds you and, in turn, the messages sent to friends, employees, colleagues and customers about the degree to which honesty and integrity matters in your environment. If people think your company culture is corrupt, they will adjust their behaviour – even if just a little – and behave accordingly, for cumulative, unethical effect.

When next faced with a potentially lucrative test, the true results of which only you can see, how will you report on a reality that may or may not work in your favour but that distils the very essence of your integrity?


Author of four books, including his latest, Leaders Eat Last, motivational speaker and marketing consultant Simon Sinek says: ‘Leadership is absolutely about inspiring action, but it is also about guarding against mis-action.’ So, what sort of choices will you make as you face the inevitably character-defining decisions that shape a career of service and brilliance and separate virtuous leaders from opportunists? Investment giant Warren Buffett has spent a lifetime investigating value. He says, ‘In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.’

Author: Brett Tromp CA(SA) is CFO of  Discovery Health