Why ethical people make unethical decisions

Leaders must accept they are held to higher standards than others

Despite good intentions, organisations set themselves up for ethical catastrophes by creating environments in which people feel forced to make choices they could never have imagined.

Here are five ways organisations needlessly provoke good people to make unethical choices.

1. IT IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNSAFE TO SPEAK UP: A manager’s reactions to an employee’s concerns sets the tone for whether or not people will raise future issues. If a leader reacts with even the slightest bit of annoyance, they are signalling they don’t really want to hear concerns.

2. THERE IS EXCESSIVE PRESSURE TO REACH UNREALISTIC PERFORMANCE TARGETS: Research suggests unfettered goal setting can encourage people to make compromising choices in order to reach targets, especially if those targets seem unrealistic. Organisations must ensure people have the resources, timelines, skill and support they need to achieve targets they are given, especially ambitious stretch goals.


3. CONFLICTING GOALS PROVOKE A SENSE OF UNFAIRNESS: Once a sense of injustice is provoked, the stage is set for compromise. Research on organisational injustice shows a direct correlation between employees’ senses of fairness and their conscious choices to sabotage their organisations.

4. ETHICAL BEHAVIOUR IS NOT PART OF ROUTINE CONVERSATION: Too many leaders assume that talking about ethics is something you do when there’s been a scandal or as part of an organisation’s compliance program. Leaders have to infuse everyday activities with ethical considerations, designing policies and norms that prioritise ethics.

5. A POSITIVE EXAMPLE ISN’T BEING SET: Leaders must accept they are held to higher standards than others. They must be extra vigilant about not only their intentions but also how others might interpret their behaviour. Leaders must be aware of any unintended messages they may be sending.

Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017