Is Bluffing Just Part of the Business Game?

Is it okay to lie or bluff in business dealings? Bluffing is defined as the intention to try to deceive someone about one’s abilities or intentions. For example, bluffing is accepted and expected in poker, but should it be the same in business dealings? That’s a tough question, especially in 2022 business environments struggling with growing economic uncertainties, talent and equipment issues, and post-pandemic supply chains.

The question is one that economist Albert Z. Carr began to address in the 1960s. His seminal thoughts on the subject were published in 1968. Harvard Business Review article, “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?”

Business Game = Bluff Game

A writer, economist, and advisor to two presidents, Carr argued that business is a game and bluffing is an acceptable form of acting.

Consider the following statement: “Business ethics is game ethics different from religious ethics.” In fact, bluffing is okay because a company aiming to be a winner in the business game “must have a player attitude”. He argued that bluffing is so integral to the business game that a manager who is not proficient in the game’s techniques “is unlikely to amass a lot of money or power.”

Lying Allowed

Company executives reading Carr’s 1968 HBR The article was given a green light for essentially bluffing—that is, a lie.

Take this quote for example.

“Most managers are almost compelled from time to time to engage in some form of deception when negotiating with customers, dealers, unions, government officials, and even other departments of their companies, for the benefit of their company or their own. By deliberately inaccurate, concealing or exaggerating relevant facts – in short, by bluffing – they try to persuade others to agree with them. If the individual manager refuses to bluff from time to time—if he feels obligated to tell the truth, the whole truth, and just the truth—it’s fair to say he’s ignoring the opportunities allowed under the rules. a severe disadvantage in business relations.”

Special Morality – Double Edged Sword

Carr considered the dynamics of bluffing with a double-edged sword. If managers don’t do this, they will likely lose ground, but if they bluff, they may still not succeed.

He called it private morality. The foundation of private morality, Carr says, is “respect for truth, and the closer a businessman gets to the truth, the more respect he deserves.”

But Carr had a catch. He argued that most bluffing in business is considered simply a game strategy – like bluffing in poker, which doesn’t reflect the bluffer’s ethics. In essence, Carr’s article was allowing business leaders to reject their conscience and bluff in order to win in business. A manager’s private morals may tell them it’s okay to lie, but Carr’s HBR The article was telling them that their morals don’t apply in the business game.

Playing the Game in 2022

Carr’s ideas were certainly prescient. Unfortunately, too many business leaders in the twenty-first century have been brought up in an age where they have been taught that business is a game and bluffing is okay.

Jump from 1968 to 2022 and we can see how Carr’s conclusions permeate nearly every aspect of everyday life, politics and business. Just as no one expects poker to be played ethically, are businesses expected to act ethically? While a company’s mission statement and values ​​are expected to demonstrate integrity and ethical behavior, how much of it is an illusion? How much does anyone care?

If business is a game, I suggest that the game we play in 2022 is a race to the bottom. Maybe that’s why concepts like transparency, Conscious Contracts, Conscious Capitalism and relational contracting are on the rise.

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