Where hiring decisions are concerned, Warren Buffett believes one trait matters most. According to Buffett:

We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy, and we look for integrity.

And if they don't have the latter, the first two will kill you, because if you're going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb.

Makes sense: The smaller your business, the more likely you are to be an expert in your field -- which means transferring some of your skills to others should be, if not easy, at least relatively straightforward.

But you can't train integrity, and evidently Buffett feels, as something that must be assessed, that integrity is a trait plenty of seemingly great candidates don't possess.

In spite of the fact that recent research shows he's, well, kinda wrong.

In a study published in 2019 in Science magazine, researchers left a total of 17,000 wallets in 40 different countries. Some contained no money, others small amounts of cash, and others fairly large sums. All included business cards with contact info for the "owner."

What happened?

  • 40 percent returned empty wallets
  • 51 percent returned wallets containing approximately $13
  • 72 percent returned wallets containing approximately $100

Yep: The more the money involved, the more "honest" people were -- even though the majority of those surveyed ahead of time predicted the majority of people would act out of monetary self-interest instead.

After all, plenty of research shows that while people care about others, they tend to care more about themselves. But that didn't turn out to be the case.

Why? As the researchers write:

People want to see themselves as an honest person, not as a thief. Keeping a found wallet means having to adapt one's self-image, which comes with psychological costs. The psychological forces ... can be stronger than the financial ones.

The effect not only contradicts rational economic thinking, it is rather surprising. The results show just how prevalent civic honesty is, and they raise many questions, such as how environments can be designed to foster civic honesty. (My italics.)

That last phrase is key. 

People want to feel good about themselves. That's why people were more likely to return wallets containing larger sums. If I keep $100, that feels "worse" than keeping $10. And that feels worse than failing to return a wallet that contained nothing of value.   

Or, put another way, I feel less honest (if there is such a thing) if I keep $100 than I do if I keep $13.

People also want to feel good about those around them. Work with people who are fair, honest, and empathetic and you'll be more likely to be fair, honest, and empathetic. Otherwise you'll be forced to examine your self-image.

And find it wanting.

People also want to feel part of something bigger than themselves. For many of us, that includes the people we work with. It feels good to be a valued member of a group. It feels good to share a sense of purpose. It feels good to know other people count on us, and that we don't let them down.

When we do, and we're forced to examine our self-image and find it wanting, that comes with a psychological cost.

So, yeah: Integrity matters.

But so does creating an environment where integrity is consistently displayed.

After all, science says most people are already honest.

Your job is to create an environment where they can be who they already are -- and where they don't have to adapt to a culture at odds with their self-image.