Business leaders know that one of the ethics issues every company faces is the honesty and integrity of employees. Are some employees more likely to stretch the truth than others?
A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asserts that right-brained creative types are 40%-80% more likely to wander into the ethical gray area than their more analytical counterparts. As the branding/creative here at EthicsPoint, this grenade landed right under my chair. I had to investigate.
Author Dan Ariely of Duke University was intrigued by the psychological profiles of various Enron, Tyco and WorldCom masterminds. Ariely decided to see if there were any common personality traits. Understand the mouse, build a better trap? I wanted to be insulted, but the results were not at all surprising when you break it down.
Creative people are driven to challenge perceptions. We want to help you look at things in a different way. As a result, we tend to be handy with things like divergent – or ‘outside the box’ – thinking, and cognitive flexibility (sort of bending reality to our own purposes). Anecdotally, I can also say that creatives tend to have slightly larger egos. It can result in their feeling exempt from the rules or entitled to change them as needed. Truly great creatives treat reality like a loose tooth: it’s to be persistently wiggled and poked at and pried out in favor of designing something bigger and better.
The Unethical Business Leader
Enter: former Enron CEO, Jeffery Skilling. A very creative guy. When those pesky rules of commodities trading were slowing him down, he simply designed some new math. He built tools for assigning actual value to the potential success of a venture before it even left the drawing board. Neat trick. It was like me telling my bank manager I’ll be depositing $500,000 on Thursday, so I’d like to go ahead and collect my first interest payment today, if you please. Yes, large bills are fine.
It’s widely thought that Skilling didn’t see this as cheating. He never once shied away from his creation. In fact, he crowed about it loudly and often. Enron wrote an entirely new reality for itself and Skilling saw that It Was Good. And on the seventh day, he cooled his heels in a Federal penitentiary where he’ll spend 24 years getting creative with an orange jumpsuit.
While most of us won’t ever defraud the public on such a grand scale, we all engage in some degree of rule-bending. Then the scope and severity of that bending increase as additional considerations are met:
- The action won’t cause any immediate or obvious harm, or the impact would be very removed/abstracted from the cheater. (I know the material, I just don’t test well; it’s okay if I get the answers in advance).
- The action or potential impact is seen as deserved in any way. (My company doesn’t pay me what I’m worth, so it’s only fair that I should accept kickbacks from my vendors, etc.). This Robin Hood/Che Guevara argument is especially powerful because it turns immoral behavior into justifiable retribution.
- Finally, we’re FAR more inclined to cheat when there’s a low likelihood of getting caught. We’ll do a lot of very unsavory things if we’re sure no one will find out. Clearly we don’t mind being dishonest, we just don’t want to be seen as dishonest.
It’s good to know that there are at least a few natural valves for controlling our darker impulses. But we can see how a creative personality may be better equipped to build a convincing rationale for improving their condition through unethical means.
The Cartman Effect
After dining on academia, I decided to cleanse my palette with a little South Park. Ironically, the show had Cartman in a ‘Stand and Deliver’ situation – upside down and backward, of course. In the Edward James Almos role (complete with comb-over and thick glasses), Eric was trying to convince a classroom full of Hispanic kids that they needed to cheat on an upcoming test. ‘How else do you think white people have gotten ahead in everything? They CHEAT!’ The show was zeroed in on a videotaping scandal with the New England Patriots. But a number of recent college athletics scandals and the Occupy Wall Street events made this a nicely-timed rerun.
We all know that South Park is just a raunchy, deliberately inflammatory cartoon. However, this piece of subtext is resonating on a large scale right now: Those in power have an unwarranted or ill-gotten advantage over the little guy. Cheating simply levels the playing field.
As an ethical business leader, the last thing you need is a bunch of Robin Hoods and Che Guevaras (or Eric Cartmans) running amok in your operation. How are you addressing this kind of thinking?
Ethics in Business: Real world implications
Realize this is first-and-foremost an excellent communication opportunity. Bring your Creatives back from the Dark Side and get them engaged in problem-solving. Challenge: Show everyone that they are real stakeholders in the success of the organization.
Get a few of your crackerjack marketing specialists to design an internal campaign around your Open Door policy – we’re actively promoting transparency, enforcing our policies at every level, and showing real appreciation to those who come forward to help. Remember the third rule of rule-bending: People are far less likely to engage in questionable behavior when there’s a high likelihood of getting caught. Find ways of saying “we’re watching” without actually saying “we’re watching.”
Then make sure that you have the systems in place with sufficient fail-safes at every level to ensure that issues are getting documented and handled effectively. When your people feel heard and see consistent behavior in their leadership, they are more inclined to contribute to an ethical work environment.
Business Ethics Webinar
Have you ever worried that pushing your employees for results may increase the use of unethical means to achieve stated goals? How can you change the organizational climate in order to encourage ethical behavior? New research shows that productivity goals may increase unethical behavior but that subtle symbols, posters, and slogans may work to increase ethical mindfulness.
Check out our archived webinar to learn about new research that shows that productivity goals may increase unethical behavior, and the tactics you can use to increase ethical mindfulness in a competitive work place.