Good people do unethical things

but why?
This article was originally co-authored by

8 December 2020

Psychological mechanisms can help us to understand why people sometimes act unethically even if they usually act morally and see themselves as moral and decent people.

Most of us see ourselves as “good people”. As a rule, we also generally expect ourselves to act ethically. Nevertheless, most of us “good people” sometimes do unethical things.

For instance, in a Reader’s Digest poll, 93% admit to having done one or more unethical things at work such as calling in sick without actually being sick, taking office supplies or lying on their CV (Jacobsen et al., 2018).

We cheat more than we should but less than we could get away with

When we examine unethical behaviour in the psychological study room, we find something telling: if given the opportunity, most of us actually choose to cheat or rather “embellish” our results (Bazerman & Gino, 2012). But only to a certain degree. We mainly embellish our results – few people fundamentally change them.

But why do we not just cheat as much as we can when we get the chance?

People seem to be concerned with being perceived as good persons and – most importantly – seeing themselves as good persons. Therefore, people generally only cheat to the point where they can still maintain the self-image: I am a good person.

Even extreme norm-violating persons such as war criminals or gang members come up with “good reasons” to commit their actions so they can maintain an intact, positive self-image while threatening, molesting and killing.

This reveals an important point in terms of when (self-perceived) “good” people do unethical things in your organisation. They do not believe that what they do is unethical.

And there are a lot of ways to make our little unethical actions seem more innocent. In fact, we are so good at rationalising why we do what we do even without being aware that we are doing it (in neuroscience, this has been demonstrated in so-called split-brain patients).

Dishonesty is all about the small acts we can take and then think: no, this is not real cheating.

Dan Ariely

Three mechanisms that make good people make bad decisions

1: Vagueness and ambiguity make it easy to justify our actions to ourselves

When public authorities or organisations set up rules for acceptable (or legal) behaviour, they often do it with a degree of vagueness to prevent people from looking for loopholes. However, it can also mean that employees utilise this potential ambiguity by interpreting vague policies and rules more freely.

When rules are imprecise, employees can flexibly interpret the rules with their own justifications. This removes possible hesitations that employees might have if they were to break explicit rules out of self-interest.

For instance, in behavioural experiments, employees who have to assess the meaning of “reasonable” behaviour have different definitions depending on how much they stand to gain or lose based on their decision.

Everything suggests that people do not do this with bad intentions. In fact, when rules become very ambiguous, people are more likely to believe that their actions are ethical.
Organisations that reduce the ambiguity of their rules and codes of conduct thereby give the employees less wiggle room to bend the meaning of them.

2: Pressure and threats

Under perceived pressure (or threat), we become more willing to take risks. And this shifts the balance towards more unethical behaviour. For example, we can feel pressure if we feel that our targets are unattainable or if we fear losing our job.

In addition, pressure and threats provide an easy way to rationalise unethical behaviour (e.g. bribery). I had to do it so I would not lose my job. I had to do it to protect my department. I had to do it to help my organisation.

Similarly, it is also found that people’s willingness to cheat and bend (or break) the rules is greater when they experience an intense level of competition. This could be in the form of competition against other companies but also internally between different departments or teams.

3: Ethical slippery slopes

Most of us sincerely think that we act ethically at home and at work. The only problem is that how we perceive our own behaviour and how it unfolds rarely paint the same picture.

One of the reasons for this is that unethical behaviour does not occur abruptly overnight but instead occurs more gradually over time.

With each unethical action, we increase the likelihood of performing a higher number of unethical actions that also become increasingly serious. We move our ethical boundaries one small step at a time so that our self-image is not disrupted too much.

Move focus from the individual to the situation

Under the right circumstances, the vast majority of us choose to do unethical things. And that says something important about what efforts should be put in place to create an ethical organisation (and reduce the risk of major ethical scandals). It is not enough to look for “the unethical individual” although individual traits also play a role. We also need to focus on the situation. That is, how we can implement decision-making processes that make it harder to rationalise unethical decisions.

Additionally, it says something important about the conditions under which ethical efforts work: most employees do not (necessarily) consider themselves to be in the target group for receiving information about ethical behaviour. They already perceive themselves as highly ethical individuals. And that has a big impact on how we plan and communicate our ethical efforts.

Our ethical initiatives can quickly become points of frustration for employees. There is a risk that we introduce or signal new controls that lead to reactance amongst employees – and maybe even resistance, which ultimately creates more problems than ethical behaviour.

When we communicate our efforts, it is therefore crucial that we create an attractive receiver position in line with the employees’ self-image. This can be achieved by communicating that we essentially are ethical people, but that we in some situations may need help remembering how best to navigate ethically. Your initiative should never blame but rather help employees stay safe and stay good.

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