11 February 2024

Why good people sometimes do bad things

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

Travis Bradberry outlines situations and attitudes that might lead a normally honest employee to start on the slippery slope of unethical behaviour.

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

Professor of Business Ethics and Integrity Management at the Rotterdam School of Management, Muel Kaptein, has studied this kind of behaviour for decades. A study he published sheds light on what motivates good people to do bad things. What follows are some of Dr Kaptein’s most compelling findings into how the mind tricks good people into losing their moral compasses.

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The compensation effect: This refers to people’s tendency to assume they accumulate moral capital. We use good deeds to balance out bad deeds, or alternatively, we give ourselves breaks from goodness, like a piece of chocolate after a week of salads.

This makes people more inclined to do bad things under the guise of “I’m a good person” or “it’s just this one thing”. A great example of this is a study in which people were observed lying and cheating more after they decided 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.

IBM founder Thomas Watson was famous for saying: “Doing business is a game, the greatest game in the world if you know how to play it.”

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: This is the discomfort humans feel when they hold two contradictory opinions, or their behaviour is inconsistent with their beliefs. It’s one of the strongest psychological forces driving human behaviour.

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

The Pygmalion effect: This refers to people’s tendency 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.

Alternatively, 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 rather than risk standing out.

Obedience to authority: It’s quite difficult for most people to ignore the wishes of those in authority. 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 — and 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 wins the prize, 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 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 organisations 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.

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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 the rules imposed on them are too strict or too restrictive, they often break those rules. They even go further against protocol than they otherwise would have.

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 the award-winning co-author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the co-founder of TalentSmart. His books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. He can be contacted at TalentSmart.com. This article first appeared on the TalentSmart website.

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