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{Hidden Ethics} Making sound ethical judgements by avoiding amoral behavior

Corporate ethics. When large corporations get it wrong (sometimes badly wrong), and suffer the inevitable consequences, the same questions are always asked. How could this have happened? How could this have been allowed to happen? Most of us would never dream of actively engaging in “immoral” or “unethical” behavior, which is what makes those questions so hard to fathom. It’s even harder to comprehend how entire companies can normalize such behavior, and end up falling off the edge of an ethical cliff.

But is “unethical” behavior really at the root of these kinds of corporate scandals, or could it be something else? Disturbingly, the research suggests it could be something far more insidious, harder to counteract, and a lot more commonplace that you might think.

According to researchers from the University of Notre Dame, it is not “immoral” behavior that we should be concerned about, but rather “amoral” behavior. “Amoral” behavior stems from an individual’s failure to recognize that there is an ethical dimension to the situation they are in. Simply put, an individual (or group of individuals) cannot be expected to exercise good ethical judgement if they fail to see any potential for an ethical dilemma in the first place. They are oblivious to the ethical implications of what they are doing.

In ‘Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior’, Ann E. Tenbrunsel and David M. Messick argue that “self-deception” is a key driver of unethical behavior. Rather than individuals consciously and deliberately engaging in unethical behavior, they suggest that a far bigger problem is “ethical fading” where people gradually desensitize themselves to the reality of what they are doing, and end up deceiving themselves into ignoring the existence of ethical dilemmas, acting amorally as a result.

Helpfully, they identify four specific “enablers” of self-deception that one can learn to recognize and counteract to avoid sliding into amoral behavior: ‘language euphemisms’, ‘the slippery slope of decision making’, ‘errors in perceptual causation’, and ‘constraints induced by representations of the self’.

If these four enablers are understood, they can be identified and neutralized through calling them out when we see them, so that the ethical dimensions of the situation can come back into view, and morally guided decisions can be made.

So what exactly are these 4 “enablers” of self-deception, how do they come about, and what can we do to counteract them? Let’s look at each of them in turn.

Language Euphemisms

The use of euphemistic language and metaphor to avoid speaking directly about contentious or ethically challenging subjects is very common, for example the term “collateral damage” used in the military when speaking about civilian deaths. In a business context, terms such as “creative accounting” and “letting someone go” can disguise potentially unethical practices and behavior by being deliberately ambiguous, and take the emotional impact out of the real-life consequences by not directly stating what is going on. Organisations frequently come up with their own code words and metaphorical language to describe specific actions or events, or generalized behaviors and policies. The danger here is that this kind of “business speak” detaches us from the reality of what is really going on.

To counteract this enabler, be sure to speak in unambiguous, literal language when discussing any subjects that have a potentially ethical dimension. When others use such language, challenge them to state, specifically and directly, what they mean.

The Slippery Slope of Decision Making

Attention to ethics can be gradually undermined by subtle, repeated behavior and actions within an organisation that can lead to “psychic numbing”. When we are repeatedly exposed to ethically questionable behavior again and again, we become desensitized and “numb” to it and eventually come to ignore the ethical implications completely.

This "numbing" can fuel feelings of helplessness and futility in those who frequently witness, without actively participating in, unethical behavior, and it can also fuel feelings of invulnerability in those who are actively, repeatedly behaving in an unethical way. If they have behaved unethically many times over and have never suffered any consequences, it becomes normalized and even justified, as they tell themselves that the fact that they have never been caught or punished shows that it can't be that bad anyway.

Another ‘slippery slope’ that can erode attention to ethics is “induction”. This is the idea that one unethical action leads to another, by setting a baseline of expectation that others can follow, and build on. It is exacerbated through the continued exploitation of "edge cases" that feel just about within the boundaries of ethical margins. Every time someone stretches that boundary, it re-baselines the ethical borders and pushes them a bit further along the continuum of unethical behavior. Induction can also be exacerbated through the Gambler's Dilemma, as increasingly unethical behavior is justified as being necessary to correct previous errors (The Nick Leeson case is a famous example of this).

Slippery slope decision-making can be counteracted by challenging normalized, accepted culture and behavior, and not blindly copying previous actions and decisions. Calling out, and taking action against, questionable behavior early on can often nip potentially unethical behavior in the bud before it snowballs and becomes more and more serious, to the point where taking action against it would be a lot more difficult.

If we do find ourselves getting caught in a Gambler’s Dilemma, we need to remind ourselves that simply repeating the same action or strategy that got us into the problem in the first place, and expecting a different result, is not going to help, and that we need to stop and adopt different, more ethically grounded behavior – which usually involves being honest and transparent about what we have done and involving more people to help remedy the situation.

Errors in Perceptual Causation

There are three main ways in which people can deceive themselves about the true cause of an ethically undesirably outcome. The first is when people place undue emphasis on the culpability of an individual, rather than wider systemic or environmental causes. A focus on a culpable individual often makes for a convenient scapegoat (absolving all others from blame), and makes a problem seem more containable and manageable, avoiding acceptance of bigger, more widespread problems that can often lead to further, more serious ethical violations.

Another way in which people shift blame away from themselves is through exaggerating the possibility of alternative (far less likely) factors being to blame. An example of this is being caught speeding and insisting that the car’s speedometer must be faulty. In an organisational context, it could be blaming “system error” for erroneous/missing/potentially incriminating data, or citing “unclear” or “ambiguous” guidelines or policies to excuse deliberate misinterpretation or exploitation of loopholes.

Thirdly, lying through omission is a common way to avoid blame, or even shift blame to the person being lied to (“they should have asked”), and is easier to defend yourself against if you get caught than telling an outright lie. Examples can include not warning potential customers about known problems with a product, or failing to divulge conflicts of interest.

To counteract these kinds of errors in attribution of blame, we need to stop and sense-check our initial reaction to a situation to more logically assess our own contribution, in the right proportion to that of others’. Asking a trusted, neutral party for their view can often provide a useful alternative perspective. When it comes to lying through omission, simply remind yourself that if in doubt, say it. Be honest and open and volunteer all the information you think could potentially be useful and relevant, without waiting for that information to be asked of you.

The Constrained Representation of Our Self

We often assume that "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" simply means imagining what you would do in their situation. However, how often do we actually imagine what they would do in their situation, i.e. what would they think and feel based on their own perspective, world view, and values. Doing the former, rather than the latter, leads to thinking such as "If it was me, I wouldn't mind. Therefore, it's ok." and "It's their fault they are upset."

By convincing ourselves that we would not be negatively affected if we were in their position, we can excuse unethical behavior and blame them for the negative consequences they experienced. We can even convince ourselves that we wouldn’t be negatively impacted if we were in their position, even when deep down we know we would, by conveniently overestimating our own resilience and stoicism. Furthermore, we can project the worst aspects of ourselves into them by telling ourselves “It they were in my position, they would behave unethically towards me, therefore they deserve it”, again, even if we know deep down that isn’t true.

The simplest way to counteract this enabler is to take the time to talk with the person(s) who may be affected by your decision and/or action before you take it. Ask them to share their perspective, rather than assuming you know what they will think and feel about it. This will help you make a better, more informed decision about what to do, and help you to understand things from a range of different viewpoints.

To conclude, “ethics”, and especially “unethical behavior” are very emotionally-charged subjects, and we tend to think in very fixed, black and white terms about what is “ethical” and what is “unethical”. It allows us to distance ourselves from anything we would consider to be “unethical”, and reassure ourselves that we could never behave in a such a way because there is a very clear line in the sand that we can see, and make sure we never cross. If we start to contemplate the existence of ambiguities and grey areas around ethics, it understandably makes us feel very uncomfortable. But it is these ambiguities, and our discomfort around addressing them, that can allow for ethical fading to happen.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the language we have grown accustomed to around ethics feels very binary. If a colleague is planning on interviewing a friend for a job position, while relatively minor, there is an ethical consideration to be made concerning conflict of interest. But how do you raise that with them? As soon as you use the words “ethics” or “conflict of interest” with someone it can feel very serious and accusatory, and all nuance and perspective is quickly lost. I think we all need to get more comfortable with the idea of ethical behavior being on a continuum – there is no switch that gets flipped to take us from ethical to unethical – and that ethical considerations are simply a part of everyday life, albeit largely unspoken.

Of course, the vast majority of people behave highly ethically at all times, and take a great deal of care when dealing with any situations that may have an ethical dimension. And this is every organisation’s greatest strength when it comes to upholding the highest ethical behavior and practices. By far, the best way to build on this strength is to talk about ethics, openly and honestly, and frequently, to ensure that ethical considerations are always at the forefront of our decision-making processes. It is precisely our discomfort with talking about “ethics” that can lead to ethical fading creeping in to organisations.

Ultimately, I think the only way to increase our level of comfort when talking about ethics, is to talk about it. If there is one thing we can all do to ensure we maintain the highest of ethical standards within our organisations, and in all aspects of our lives, it is to simply ask the question “is there an ethical dimension to this?” whenever discussing a potential decision or course of action, particularly one that may have an impact on people. That’s really all that’s needed – in the vast majority of cases, people’s innate humanity and decency will take care of the rest.

For full details of the research behind the 4 enablers of deception, see:

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