When good people do bad things

The hard reality is that good people do bad things and honest leaders let it happen. While out and out fraud certainly occurs, the daily parade of headline-grabbing scandals that impact our leading corporations are being instigated by leaders we would otherwise think of as normal, hard-driving executives.

As we learn from behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely, it is normal human nature for us all to cheat a little bit. Human nature as it is presents a constant choice between satisfying our self-interest and doing what we feel is the right thing. We balance our desire to get more for ourselves with our desire to perceive ourselves as honest. So long as our self-aggrandizing actions don’t make us feel like we are cheaters, we will continue to act only in our self-interest.

We start with little things: white lies becoming bigger, taking office supplies and small fudging of details on expense reports. We see whether such actions are the kind of things that we can share with peers around the coffee machine. Once we get feedback that these actions did not cause us harm or social ostracism, we find ourselves pushing the envelope further. We are now well on our way down the slippery slope. We are all vulnerable to varying degrees of rationalization and self-deception. We will tell ourselves stories to justify our actions and remove the dilemmas from our deacons-making.

So how do we change behavior and make ourselves more virtuous? The first step is self-awareness of what we are, in fact, doing. Just being mindful that we are human and subject to these pulling demands is a critical place to start. We don’t need guilt for not being “perfect.” Being human is being in the game of daily choices and not pretending that we can stand on a pedestal of propriety and be immune to the dilemmas we all face. We need to be mindful of the blindspots and unconscious biases we all embody. Our upbringing and social environment embed our unique set of biases: what is right or wrong, what is safe or dangerous. In organizations, this is the vital first step for leaders: to recognize that an ethical culture is not created by just setting high standards, but by understanding how we are all vulnerable.

The critical second step is then to create an environment that reduces the temptation that plagues all of us. Leaders have an obligation to understand what will reduce the risk of misconduct.

Where do we start? We each need to understand where we may be our own worst enemy. Ethical people are not always ethical leaders. They may be giving mixed signals to employees about expectations. They may be unknowingly creating a workplace environment that is so stressful that it leads individuals to take actions they are not proud of.

What steps can we take? Several tools used in Conscious Business provide a powerful platform for the self-awareness needed to reduce the risk of unethical conduct.

i/we/it — The i/we/it model is a powerful tool to see a broader picture of how to find sustainable and successful balance in one’s actions. In the narrow focus of achieving goals (IT), individuals can allow themselves to put on blinders that focus only on this goal. However, remembering the “I” is an important stop-gap that gives pause to one’s blind-focus actions. Taking steps to remember why I am engaged in this action and asking if it truly serves me can be a valuable wake-up call. Similarly, having a healthy set of relationships (WE) in your world can also be a powerful wake-up call. Having individuals whom you trust enough to call you on your actions can help break the auto-response blinders of self-deception.

Managing Polarities — One of the more common reasons why good people engage in bad behavior is they push themselves into a binary decision: I have no choice but to take this wrong action; the ends justify the means. But, what if we could acknowledge the tensions between what the organization says it needs and what is the right thing to do? Polarity mapping is a powerful tool to understand that organizational goals and maintaining high levels of integrity are not opposites, even if they are in tension. The exercise of understanding what are the positive and negative drivers of meeting business goals at all costs, as well as the effective and ineffective way of imposing standards, will create a powerful dialog that can help individuals and organizations find an effective balance.

We all want to do the right thing. But we are also human. Understanding how our human nature influences our decision-making gives us the power to prevent good people from doing bad things.

About David Gebler

David Gebler works with senior leadership teams to accurately measure what motivates and drives behavior in organizations, using those results to improve their performance. He can be reached at david.gebler@axialent.com
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