One thing successful people have in common is their ambition—the ability to remain dissatisfied with their achievements. But when ambition stretches to unusually high levels, it gets hard to distinguish it from greed.
Think of the most successful person you can, whether it's Alexander the Great, Nelson Rockefeller, or that Silicon Valley billionaire you follow on Twitter. Most people would never dream of accomplishing what they did, and the rest would probably give up as soon as they realized what sacrifices they'd need to make in order to achieve such dreams.
That isn't because most people are too lazy make sacrifices, though. It's because some of the sacrifices we're asked to make in the course of our careers cut against our moral code—or at least don't square with our other priorities, the ones that don't have anything to do with success. When you're so fixated on getting ahead, it's hard to maintain positive social relations (remember the lonely finales to Citizen Kane or the Godfather III?).
Many people known for being sincere, warm, and honest make great coworkers and friends, but don't often accumulate power and influence. Which begs an important question with ethical consequences: How much does getting along with others actually interfere with getting ahead of them? In other words, does being honest pay off?
If you consider honesty from the observer’s perspective—how honest others think you are—it's easier to see how it does. As hundreds of psychological studies have shown, few qualities are more desirable at work than integrity, and this is particularly true in management and leadership jobs.
Moreover, the best way to predict whether leaders are likely to engage in unethical behavior is to ask their subordinates how much they trust them. In contrast, when we ask leaders—or people in general—to evaluate their own integrity, few people will admit that they're dishonest or immoral (and those who do are probably more ethical than several of those who don’t).
That said, there's also a bright side to dishonesty. For example, deception and lying have been associated with higher levels of creativity. This makes sense: It takes a certain amount of imagination to distort reality, and frequent liars must keep their minds more active by remembering not only the truth but also their alternative accounts of it.
Conversely, as Mark Twain noted, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything." And of course every society encourages a certain degree of deception in everyday life—what we usually refer to as "white lies." When your friends or colleagues need your approval and ask for positive feedback, it's usually wiser to refrain from communicating your opinions in a totally unvarnished way. Living with others would be quite unbearable if we were brutally honest with each other.
There are also some benefits in being dishonest with oneself, or what psychologists refer to as self-deception. For example, persuading yourself that things are better than they actually are can help you maintain your optimism and happiness, and from a subjective perspective—if your main goal is to feel good—that's pretty convenient.
Perhaps more important, fooling yourself is an effective strategy for fooling others; when you believe your own lies, you can lie to others just by telling what you feel to be the truth, which makes it harder for others to find you out.
And in some instances—including in the cases of some of the most transformational leaders and entrepreneurs—reality distortion is a critical ingredient for any powerful vision. You need to see things in a different way before you can persuade others that they should work with you to make your envisioned alternative a reality.
Ultimately, though, the main problem with dishonesty is that it lets parasitic people thrive at the expense of the group. So while unethical behaviors might pay off at the individual level—think of Machiavelli’s Prince or Frank Underwood in House of Cards—the result is almost always less desirable for others. When organizations and societies tolerate selfish behaviors, they're usually outperformed in the long run by more honest and selfless (or at least more team-spirited) competitors.
This may help explain the strong positive correlation between transparency and GDP per capita rankings around the world. So while in any country there are people who get rich and powerful by bending the rules, the success of any country overall depends on keeping the proportion of those individuals to a minimum.
In short, the advantages of dishonesty are short-term and individual. The advantages of honesty are long-term and collective. However, what’s good for the group is usually good for the individual, whereas what’s good for the individual is much less often good for the group—especially when it's made up of some particularly dishonest people.