How Ethical Can We Be?
Summing Up Managers like to think they act ethically, but at the end of the day ethical action is subjective, readers tell Jim Heskett. Reaction to the new book Blind Spots.
Our perceptions of whether we do "what's right" depend on such things as the situation, the time frame, the expectations of others, and whether we are face-to-face with the object of our actions. And we are much poorer judges of whether we are doing what's right than those observing us. In a nutshell, those are the feelings of many respondents to this month's column. Frances Pratt summed up the comments of others in three words, "ethics is subjective."
Ravindra Edirisooriya asked, for example, "Can humans be ethical in one environment and unethical in another environment?" Anyone who has studied business cultures in various parts of the world probably would respond affirmatively. Gerald Nanninga observed that "unethical decisions can often appear to be the 'best' decision when using a narrow time frame mindset." Shadreck Saili concluded that, under the circumstances, "we should be as ethical as the situation around us can determine while at the same time be mindful of the consequences …."
Turning to the core issue of the column, why do we so often regard ourselves as more fair and ethical than we really are? Why do those with whom we interact judge us differently than we judge ourselves? Phil Clark commented that "Ethics is in the 'eye of the beholder,' not the person carrying out the action." We may rationalize our behaviors depending on, as R. Keller put it, "pressure … to meet deadlines, desire to further one's career, or desire to protect one's livelihood (or, one might add, one's loved ones)."
In an organization, doing what's right starts at the top. Ashraf Khan commented that "Individual managers (tone at the top) play an essential role making sure (that unethical behavior) doesn't happen," noting also that "… it is a heck of a job to keep staying aware…" Vasudev Das suggests that words of Krishna are appropriate here, to wit: "whatever action a great man performs, common men follow; and whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, the entire world pursues." Joe Schmid commented that "the 'highest behavior' any leader can expect from those they lead is the 'lowest behavior' they demonstrate."
To the extent that fairness and ethical behaviors are in the eye of the beholder, good leadership involves establishing expectations and meeting them, probably through a process, as Mike Flanagan put it, of "more open discussion at home, work and at play." Other suggestions came from C. J. Cullinane when he said "we can make better, fairer decisions by being aware of these biases." Ajay Kumar Gupta suggested hiring practices that place a great deal of weight on "attitude" and "listening skills."
Trust is a cornerstone of an efficient and effective system. Bad things happen when it is undermined by unmet expectations or ethical blind spots. What can we do to insure that we as well as our managers are taking steps to deal with their ethical blind spots? What do you think?
Umpires and referees favor the home team. That's the conclusion of research by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Werthheim that appeared in their recent book, Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won. It was biased judgment on the part of supposedly unbiased referees and umpires.
They hypothesize that the cause is a natural tendency to avoid excessive booing by the home team crowd, particularly in the later stages of a contest in which unbiased behavior is most necessary. Of course one could ask, "Are they cheating, especially when they are probably unaware of what they are doing?"
In a new book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It, authors Max H. Bazerman, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame, argue that something they call bounded ethicality leads "even good people to engage in ethically questionable behavior that contradicts their own preferred ethics."
We do it when it is easy to do, when it is hard to verify, when we have insufficient time or information ("bounded awareness," which often occurs in large organizations in which functions are walled off from one another). We may do it in ways that allow us to preserve our perception of ourselves as an ethical person. Doctors experience it when they make diagnoses and prescriptions biased by their special training while maintaining their belief that they are putting their patients first.
It helps explain why people systematically regard themselves as being much more ethical than they really are. And it supports a conclusion that, unless ways can be found to reduce bounded ethicality, most ethics "education" is missing a large part of the problem. In fact, one study found that ethicists who teach the subject are less likely to return library books associated with their research than the general public is to return books that it borrows.
Why should this matter to us? Employees tell us in one way or another that the single most important characteristic of their job is "a boss who's fair," who hires, promotes, and recognizes the right people. Nearly all bosses think they're fair, a much larger proportion than is perceived by their employees.
As antidotes to blind spots, Bazerman and Tenbrunsel argue that we can change ourselves, in part through awareness of the phenomenon itself, putting in place "precommitment devices" that seal you to a desired course of action--imagining your eulogy, or reviewing decisions with a friend. For organizations, greater transparency and fewer silos, among other things, can help (as opposed to such things as signing codes of conduct or undergoing training in ethics).
How do we address these problems? Do we just hire more ethical people? Or do we help people see how they act in ways that are inconsistent with their more reasoned ethical preferences? What can organizations do to increase the likelihood of employees acting ethically? And, what can society do to change the institutions that guide individual and organizational behavior? Or is the problem beyond us? After all, how ethical can we be? What do you think?
To Read More:
Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2011).
Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Werthheim, Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won (New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishing Group, 2011).