27 September 2023

Step out of line: Why good people do bad things

Start the conversation

Travis Bradberry* explains the conditions that result in once reliable leaders and employees straying into unethical behaviour.

Given the right circumstances, good people can get caught up in some very bad things.

More often than not, psychology is to blame.

When it comes to unethical behaviour, good people don’t tend to go right off the deep end like Bernie Madoff or Kenneth Lay.

Rather, the mind plays tricks on them, pushing them down the slippery slope of questionable behaviour.

Muel Kaptein, of the Rotterdam School of Management, has studied bad behaviour for decades.

Research he recently published sheds considerable light on what motivates good people to do bad things.

What follows are Dr Kaptein’s most compelling findings into how the mind tricks good people into losing their moral compass.

The compensation effect:

This refers to the tendency for people to assume they accumulate moral capital.

We use good deeds to balance out bad deeds, or alternately, we give ourselves breaks from goodness, like a piece of chocolate after a week of salads.

A great example of this is a study in which people were observed lying and cheating more after they made the decision to purchase products that were good for the environment.

The power of names:

What you name something is important, as it can skew people’s sense of reality.

If companies assign unethical practices simple and humorous euphemisms (like ‘financial engineering’ for accounting fraud), employees are less likely to take their unethical behaviour seriously.

Something as simple as calling business a game can make people less likely to see that their actions have serious, real-world consequences.

Cognitive dissonance:

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort humans feel when they hold two contradictory opinions.

When people who feel they are good do bad things, cognitive dissonance makes them ignore this behaviour because they can’t tolerate the inconsistency between their behaviour and their beliefs.

Broken window theory:

This argues that chaos and disorder in an organisation make people believe they work for an ineffectual authority.

In response, they are more likely to commit unethical behaviour that’s in line with this perceived chaos.

Tunnel vision:

There’s nothing wrong with setting goals and driving hard to achieve them.

This only becomes a problem when people are possessed by a singular focus on a particular goal, to the point that they leave compassion and ethics out of their thinking.

The Pygmalion effect:

This refers to the tendency people have to act the way that other people treat them.

For example, if employees are treated like they’re upright members of a team, they’re more likely to act accordingly.

Alternately, if they’re treated with suspicion, they’re more likely to act in a way that justifies that perception.

The pressure to conform:

When a group engages in unethical behaviour, individuals are far more likely to participate in, or condone that behaviour.

Obedience to authority:

It’s quite difficult for most people to ignore the wishes of those in authority positions.

People also feel like they’re less responsible for wrongdoings if they act under the direction of someone else.

Both of these reasons explain why employees are likely to act out the unethical wishes of their supervisors.

They feel far less guilt than if they had decided to do it themselves.

Winner-take-all competition:

We live in a society where there is often only one winner: One person gets the job, one person receives the credit.

Does this competitive culture really produce the best outcomes?

When it comes to ethical behaviour, the answer is no.

When there is only one winner in a given situation, people are more likely to cheat rather than face the consequences of losing.

Social bond theory:

Employees are more likely to be loyal to their organisations if they feel unique, valued, and important.

The more they feel that they’re replaceable and under-appreciated, the more likely they are to commit ethical violations.

The blinding effect of power:

People in power typically see themselves as inherently different from their employees.

This can lead them to set ethical boundaries for their employees that are more stringent than the ones they set for themselves.

What happens next is the stuff of newspaper headlines.

Conspicuous consumption:

When companies splash money around, they contribute to unethical behaviour.

Flashy displays of wealth lead to increased selfishness.

Employees either aim hard for these carrots or develop jealousy of their high-rolling colleagues who achieve them.

This leads to people who are more likely to put their own needs ahead of doing the right thing.

Acceptance of small theft:

One might think that taking small things from the workplace, like notebooks, pens, and computer paper, is harmless.

When small thefts are ignored by management, people become far more likely to up the ante.

Reactance theory:

People like their freedom. If they feel that the rules imposed on them are too strict or too restrictive, they often break those rules.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about ethical violations is the simple, almost mundane conditions that contribute to them.

Thankfully, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way in reducing environments that contribute to this behaviour.

*Travis Bradberry is co-author of the book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and co-founder of TalentSmart. He can be contacted at TalentSmart.com.

This article first appeared on the TalentSmart website.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.