Little White Lies

When it comes to integrity, "just do the right thing" is too simplistic

Little White Lies
Photo by David Martin / Unsplash

"Just do the right thing," isn't bad advice, but it's lacking detail. This article is what I've learned about integrity, not because I have it figured out but because it's an important topic to explore beyond one simple heuristic.

Avoid the Marginal Cost Mistake

In 2010, Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen delivered an address to the university's graduating class which is now published as an article titled How Will You Measure Your Life on HBR's website. The whole article is worth a read, but one piece of advice stuck with me more than anything else.

Every semester on the last day of class, Christensen probes his students to apply the economic principles they've learned to their personal lives by answering the following questions:

"First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?"

The last question always evokes a chuckle, but it's a serious consideration. Christensen argues one way otherwise good people end up doing bad things is because they applied the concept of marginal costs to matters of integrity when it should've been confined to matters of business. A sad number of his own Harvard classmates ended up in jail not because they planned to, but because they extrapolated this model to their personal lives. He explains it best:

"Unconsciously, we often employ the marginal cost doctrine in our personal lives when we choose between right and wrong. A voice in our head says, “Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn’t do this. But in this particular extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK.” The marginal cost of doing something wrong “just this once” always seems alluringly low. It suckers you in, and you don’t ever look at where that path ultimately is headed and at the full costs that the choice entails. Justification for infidelity and dishonesty in all their manifestations lies in the marginal cost economics of “just this once.”

The marginal cost of crossing the proverbial line only in extenuating circumstances is deceivingly low. I'll just cheat on this one exam because my roommate was having an emotional crisis that kept me up all last night so I couldn't study, but I won't do it again. The cost of cheating just this once seems insignificant. After all, what's one exam when you take hundreds over your time in school?

However, Christensen explains the danger of such thinking with a personal story. In college, he was on a men's basketball team that made it to the championships. Unfortunately, the championship game fell on a Sunday, and he had already made a commitment to God never to play ball on a Sunday. So he missed the game.

"In many ways that was a small decision—involving one of several thousand Sundays in my life. In theory, surely I could have crossed over the line just that one time and then not done it again. But looking back on it, resisting the temptation whose logic was 'In this extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK' has proven to be one of the most important decisions of my life. Why? My life has been one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over in the years that followed.

The lesson I learned from this is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place." (all emphasis mine)

The sliding scale of integrity is a slippery one. When 99% is your standard instead of 100%, it becomes increasingly comfortable to keep crossing the line "just this once," and you don't realize how far you've slid from the starting line until it's too late. 99 and 100 seem close, but in matters of integrity, they couldn't be further apart.

Little White Lies

Nothing better illustrates the mistake of applying the concept of marginal costs to our personal lives than little white lies. The true consequence of the lie isn't its direct outcome (which may be nothing at all), but the trajectory it sets you on.

There's a rule of thumb in aviation called the 1 in 60 rule It states that for each degree you're off course by when you start a journey, after 60 miles, you'll be 1 nautical mile off. When course-correcting after 60 miles, if you turn back by the one degree you missed, you will only be flying parallel toward your original path but not yet pointed back toward your original destination. To arrive at that destination, you would need to turn an additional degree.

This video explains the 1 in 60 rule more clearly.

This is why doing the seemingly unimportant things correctly at the beginning matters. When you let them slide at the start, it's much harder to get back on track as time goes on. Thus, it's precisely in those moments when the consequences of our misdeeds appear most harmless that we most need to do the right thing.

I used to think little white lies weren't a big deal. If the outcome was the same, why not choose the "version of the truth" that makes my life easier? Now I see how foolish it was to believe there weren't other ramifications. Foolish to think I would somehow make a better choice when there's more pressure, more at stake, and more factors involved than when there's no pressure, no consequences, and an uncomplicated situation.

What makes me think that I'll do the right thing when it counts if I can't even commit when it doesn't?

In reference to how habits shape your identity, James Clear writes, "Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity."

This applies not just to obvious external habits such as going to the gym regularly because you're a fit person but also internal habits like telling the truth because you're an honest person. Every infraction of your own moral code, no matter how small it seems in the moment, is a vote for the direction you're life is heading in.

No decision is inconsequential; each one you make is a diversion from or correction toward the right path. Every slight degree we turn seems so insignificant in the moment, but over enough time and distance, it could be the difference between us ending up in jail or sailing safely into retirement with a clear conscience.


The biggest predictor of a group's level of integrity is its leader's standards. When I've worked under people who had high levels of integrity, I noticed how it permeated the culture of their entire team. I remember working for someone who had such strong integrity that I had to raise my own standards to keep up. We need more leaders like that. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. I've worked for people who didn't have such strong integrity, and I was much more prone to let misdeeds (mine and others') slide. This isn't to say I wasn't at fault. Followers aren't off the hook just because their leaders are doing wrong.

After WW2, the victorious Allied forces held a series of trials against German political and military leaders concerning their crimes committed in the Holocaust. The German leaders' common defense was, I had to do it because I was instructed to by my superior. Now known as the Nuremberg Trials, these hearings marked a turning point in history where the people who carried out the crimes of their leaders could be held responsible for their actions. If deferring to leadership were a good enough excuse, there would only be one man to blame for the Holocaust: Hitler. But there wasn't one man to blame. Hitler was just the head of an octopus with many tentacles.

When you are a follower, you are still responsible for your actions, but the easiest way to make sure those actions stay right is to be intentional about the leaders you choose to follow.

When you are an official leader, especially where there are explicit power relationships e.g. boss-employee, your standards will become the standards of the people who look up to you, good or bad.

Even when you're not in an official leadership position, you're in a position to lead more often than you think. Standing for something better than the status quo and not wavering isn't reserved for people with a title. It's open to anyone.

In the end, we'll miss the mark, we'll fall short, and we'll be imperfect, but we can still make every effort to achieve 100% because no decision is inconsequential, no action is trivial, and no word is meaningless. Everything you do is a vote for the person you're becoming. Let that decide how you act when everyone is looking and when no one is looking.