And Find Ways to Feel Good About It

The mind unconsciously works to protect self-esteem.  Without trying, we enhance perceptions of our own attractiveness and intelligence.  More troubling, we tend to tread lightly on our ethical and moral failings.

Two professors of management, Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunzel, recently reported on how widespread an issue this is in business.  They concluded:  “people consistently believe themselves to be more ethical than they are.”

Faced with pressures to protect colleagues or clients, or to improve their own image, they tend to bend the rules, overlook damaging information, and, often, just fail to remember inconvenient facts they know.  Legally, of course, they can be punished for “willful misconduct” or gross negligence.”  But many examples of what the authors call “ethical fading” fall into the gray area of judgment and discretion.

Reporting on their findings in The New York Times, they noted that sometimes the very procedures designed to discourage ethical lapses can make them more likely to occur.  Disclosing conflicts of interest, for example, can have the effect of absolving those who have the conflict from further worry about it.  It can also offer clients a false reassurance that the problem has been detected and resolved.  But the reality of temptation is not so easy to dispose of, and indeed, can be easier to give into temptation if one’s conscience has been cleared.  (See, “Stumbling Into Bad Behavior.”)

Similarly, they note that paying a fine for polluting the environment or neglecting safety measures can ease the pain of guilt.  The price can make an action look more like a transaction than a transgression.  In fact, if there is a price that can be paid, it can become simply another cost of doing business.

This is not a problem than can be dealt with easily.  Efforts to impose regulation and establish departments to monitor compliance with ethical standards invite subversion and conspiracy.  They often lead to struggles between “us” and “them,” and ingenious “solutions.”  Such measures, on the other hand, send strong signals that there are serious problems requiring attention.

The authors state:  “True reform needs to go beyond fines and disclosures; if we are to truly eliminate conflicts of interest we must understand the psychology behind them.”  That’s true – but awareness and mindfulness will not be enough by themselves to keep the relentless, unconscious forces of self-interest and self-esteem at bay.

Casual ethical lapses have to become more risky and painful.  Enlisting the anxiety of danger and the fear of consequences will help people become more aware of the risks they run.  In the long run, those are the forces needed to counteract “ethical fading.”

We can’t stop people from breaking the law or putting their colleagues and clients at risk.  But we can make the danger more prominent and more difficult to deny.