The Importance of ‘Don’t’ in Inducing Ethical Employee Behavior
In a new study, HBS professors Francesca Gino and Joshua D. Margolis look at two ways that companies can encourage ethical behavior: the promotion of good deeds or the prevention of bad deeds. It turns out that employees tend to act more ethically when focused on what not to do. That can be problematic in firms where success is commonly framed in terms of advancement of positive outcomes rather than prevention of bad ones. Key concepts include:
- In general, there are two ways a company can encourage ethical conduct among its employees: either the promotion of good actions and outcomes or the prevention of bad ones.
- Through several experiments, the professors found that inducing a prevention focus will lead to ethical behavior more than inducing a promotion focus.
- In encouraging ethical behavior among employees, it behooves firms to consider focusing on preventing negative outcomes, not only in creating a code of ethics but also in setting goals and framing task directives.
In trying to encourage good moral conduct, it's common for a company to come up with a list of don'ts—wording policies such that they focus on unethical behavior employees should avoid rather than on ethical acts they should strive to achieve. Don't cheat. Don't lie. It's a tendency that dates back to the Ten Commandments, the vast majority (eight) of which dictate what thou shalt not do.
Meanwhile, in virtually every other aspect of business there is a focus on what to do. Do meet sales projections. Do outperform competitors. Do impress the boss by getting things done.
"The default tendency is for companies to frame goals in terms of promotion, and what we show here is that this might actually lead to cheating as a side effect."
The dichotomy raises an important question: If employees are generally focused on the benefits of getting things done, will they be attentive to messages about what not to do? Harvard Business School professor Joshua D. Margolis draws a parallel to stage directions in a high-school play. "If you're always told when to enter, you might skip over the one time you're told to exit," he says.
Margolis and fellow HBS professor Francesca Gino explore the issue in a new research paper, "Bringing Ethics into Focus: How Regulatory Focus and Risk Preferences Influence (Un)ethical Behavior," in which they distinguish between two ways a company can encourage ethical conduct among its employees: either the promotion of being ethical or the prevention of being unethical. (The paper will be published in the academic journal, "Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.")
"Since the Enron scandal, there has been a lot of research across disciplines on why even good people do wrong," Margolis says. "But we have relatively little research to date that says, so, what do you do about it? That's the big game that we're hunting. What are some simple implementations or changes managers can introduce in their organizations to encourage good behavior?"
Promotion or prevention?
Through a series of experiments with college and graduate students, which are detailed in the paper, Gino and Margolis set out to induce individuals to focus on either promotion or prevention via a series of situational cues. They then studied whether the subconscious adoption of either a promotion or a prevention focus could affect an individual's behavior.
The researchers now contend that a person's focus, either promotion or prevention, can indeed influence his or her ethical behavior at any given time.
"I think the main message of the paper is that with situational cues, you can trigger one type of motivation versus the other," Gino says. "And because of this motivation, people end up cheating more or less. What we find is that the cues that induce a promotion focus—this idea of attaining high levels of performance—can lead to more cheating than prevention-focus types of framework or cues."
In one experiment, students had to come up with anagrams under the time pressure of 90 seconds per round, over a series of six rounds, with the understanding that they would be scoring themselves at the end of the test—and that they would be rewarded for high performance.
"In each round, participants were given a series of seven letters and asked to create as many words as possible," the paper explains. "The last series of letters was presented in a different order for each participant so that we could track who cheated and to what extent by comparing workbooks and answer sheets with participants' self-reported performance."
The students learned that they would each receive a Scrabble dictionary to check their work, after which they would fill out an answer sheet to report their performance. But before providing the dictionaries, the researchers distributed a pencil-and-paper maze to each student, in which the goal was to help a trapped cartoon mouse find its way out.
In some mazes, a picture of a piece of cheese sat outside the exit, next to a hole in the wall where the mouse could escape. This was meant to induce a promotion focus: Go get that reward! In other cases, in lieu of cheese, there was a menacing cartoon owl hovering above the maze, such that it behooved the mouse to reach the exit so as not to become bird food. That maze was meant to induce a prevention focus: Don't get killed!
Once they had completed the mazes, the students returned to the task of scoring themselves on the anagram test. They were told to pay themselves from the envelope on their desks according to their performance.
The results showed that the students who completed the cheese maze were far more likely to overstate their results, and to reward themselves accordingly, than those who completed the maze with the scary owl—82 percent (37 out of 45 participants) and 39 percent (16 out of 41 participants), respectively.
In a separate experiment, the researchers demonstrated that they could induce a promotion or prevention focus simply by phrasing the goals of the study in two different ways. Some students received promotion-based instructions that included the following statement, focusing on advancement: "This research project is being conducted to advance the ideals and aspirations pursued by applied social science." Others received a statement focusing on compliance: "Statement of Research Code of Conduct—This research project is being conducted with strict adherence to the standards and obligations required of applied social science."
Again, the students who were steered toward a promotion focus were more likely to cheat on the activities that followed. In other words, inducing a prevention focus may lead to more ethical behavior than inducing a promotion focus. Company executives may want to take note.
"The default tendency is for companies to frame goals in terms of promotion, and what we show here is that this might actually lead to cheating as a side effect," Gino says. "So the idea is to maybe revise those policies in terms of prevention so that they could trigger [ethical behavior]."
In yet another experiment, the researchers repeated the anagram tests, the mazes, and the monetary rewards with a different set of students, but then they added a wrinkle: After rewarding themselves from the envelopes on their desks, the students had the opportunity to donate some of their winnings to National Public Radio.
Tracking moral and immoral actions
The results showed that a much larger number of the student participants donated money to NPR in the promotion focus (10 out of 33) than in the prevention focus (2 out of 33). In other words, while inducing a promotion focus seemed to induce unethical acts, it also led to higher levels of virtuous behaviors to make up for those unethical acts.
"So there is evidence for the fact that people like to feel that they're in balance when it comes to ethics," Gino says. "People are guided by their moral compass when facing ethical dilemmas. And they keep track of their moral and immoral actions. There's a sense that there's a moral scale inside of you, and you want to keep it balanced."
Eventually, Gino and Margolis plan to work within several companies to discover particular ways to incorporate a prevention focus into their bottom line, while still encouraging financial success. In the meantime, managers can be mindful of striking a balance between morals and money when setting goals and offering rewards.
"When you're a manager helping to set up the conditions in which people operate, be attuned to the messages you're sending," Margolis says. "If the message is, 'Be sure not to step over the line, but hit those numbers,' don't be shocked if people forget the first message. You need to be clear about penalties even as you are clear about goal setting. You want a healthy setting between those."