Thought Leadership


Why good people sometimes do bad things

Are ethical foundations in place?

August 29, 2012
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right and wrongI discovered these factors that influence behavioral ethics in the course of my doctoral research, when I analyzed 150 different derailments within organizations. Since then, these factors have been tested in various studies.

In a recently published article in an international journal I show, on the basis of a survey of managers and employees, that the more prominent these factors are, the less unethical behavior takes place at work. The factors are as follows:

  1. Clarity for directors, managers and employees as to what constitutes desirable and undesirable behavior: the clearer the expectations, the better people know what they must do and the more likely they are to do it.
  2. Role-modeling among administrators, management or immediate supervisors: the better the examples given in an organization, the better people behave, while the worse the example, the worse the behavior.
  3. Achievability of goals, tasks and responsibilities set: the better equipped people in an organization are, the better they are able to do what is expected of them.
  4. Commitment on the part of directors, managers and employees in the organization: the more the organization treats its people with respect and involves them in the organization, the more these people will try to serve the interests of the organization.
  5. Transparency of behavior: the better people observe their own and others’ behavior, and its effects, the more they take this into account and the better they are able to control and adjust their behavior to the expectations of others.
  6. Openness to discussion of viewpoints, emotions, dilemmas and transgressions: the more room people within the organization have to talk about moral issues, the more they do this, and the more they learn from one another.
  7. Enforcement of behavior, such as appreciation or even reward for desirable behavior, sanctioning of undesirable behavior and the extent to which people learn from mistakes, near misses, incidents, and accidents: the better the enforcement, the more people tend towards what will be rewarded and avoid what will be punished.

Trying to explain behavior

In explaining and influencing people’s behavior, we must first address a fundamental question: How do we regard ‘people’? If the management of an organization sees their employees and customers as criminals, then strict measures must be taken to keep them in check. Their freedom of action is restricted and supervision and control are intensified. The company quickly becomes a prison, with the management seeing themselves as the guards. The outside world, however, is bound to view the situation differently, seeing the directors as top criminals, and is therefore particularly keen to restrict their power.

 As long as science has existed people have debated whether humankind is good or evil, and whether this is a matter of nature, or comes from upbringing, education and environment: the nature-nurture debate. Classical economic theories would have us believe that man is egotistical, and focused on satisfying his own needs.

If we can choose, for example, between two products of the same quality, then we choose the product with the lowest price, because this is to our advantage. According to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), people are wolves: the bestial nature of man means that we are purely focused on our own interest. We are heedless of others and competitive to the core. We only behave socially and cooperatively out of a sense of self-preservation. Without the intervention of a higher authority there would be permanent war.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Hobbes was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau was of the opinion that people have a preference for good: ‘Man is by nature good and happy; it is society which destroys original happiness.’ According to Rousseau it is the corrupting influence of the environment, of society, which incites man to do wrong and therefore makes him unhappy.

The question as to who is right is not an easy one.

Recent research by Kiley Hamlin and colleagues gives us a hint at the answer. They were interested in the question of the extent to which people are naturally able to distinguish right and wrong. Only if people can make this distinction can they determine whether they want to behave accordingly. In order to establish this, research was carried out among young children, because they are not yet fully formed.

In the study babies aged six months had a large wooden board placed before them. To the left on the board was a picture of a mountain. A wooden figure with two big round eyes then moved towards the mountain. The figure was controlled by the researchers on the other side of the board, out of sight of the baby. The figure tried to climb the mountain, but fell down when it reached half way. This happened again on a second attempt. When the figure climbed the mountain for the third time, another figure was added: the helper or hinderer. The helper also came from the right and pushed the figure to the top. The hinderer came from the left, from the top of the mountain, and pushed the figure down, so that it failed to reach the top for a third time.

Both figures were then placed in front of the babies on a tray. The researchers were curious as to which figure the babies would pick up. Would it be the hinderer or the helper? And what happened? In all cases the babies picked up the helper and left the hinderer. Even when the researchers varied the colors and shapes of the helper and hinderer, the results were the same.

According to the researchers this is evidence that people are capable of distinguishing right and wrong from a very early age, even before they can speak. We are able to determine what is good and what is harmful for others. Evidently we possess empathy from a young age. But not only that: we also have a tendency to choose the good. However limited the experiment may have been, and however primitive the distinction here between good and evil, this suggests we feel sympathy for what is good.

If people feel empathy by nature, then that helps us to determine how we should set up organizations and how we can best do business and work together. It is then not just a question of imposing and enforcing (the so-called ‘compliance-approach’ of rules, controls and sanctions) but also, or even primarily, of cultivating what is already present in the seed (the so-called ‘integrity approach’ of virtues, reflection, and appreciation).

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