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By Anja van den Berg

Most corporations have checks and balances in place to propagate ethical behaviour. Value statements are regularly part and parcel of a company’s ethos. Corporate Social Responsibility guidelines are a modern mainstay. Employers of choice even have whistle-blower programmes in place.

Yet, it is often unspoken psychological dynamics that push employees — as well as leaders themselves — to cross ethical lines.

Warren Buffet says that those who step over ethical lines are “neither saints nor criminals, but well-meaning leaders who sometimes fail to consult their moral compass while speeding ahead in a landscape full of tripwires and pitfalls.”

How can you tell when you, or your team, are on the road to an ethical lapse?  Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, an organisational psychologist, explains the psychological dynamics behind unethical behaviour: omnipotence, cultural numbness and justified neglect.

  1. Omnipotence

Many a moral lapse can be traced back to a feeling that you are invincible, untouchable and hyper-capable, Wedell-Wedellsborg explains. The leader who feels himself to be omnipotent believes that rules and norms are meant for everyone but him. Crossing an ethical line seems less like a transgression and more like what they are owed. They think they have the right to cut the line or redraw the policy.

  1. Cultural numbness

Cultural numbness develops when a person of significance (usually the leader or people within a group of influence) subtly bends the rules. Others then play along or mimic their behaviour. From there, the team gradually begin to accept and embody deviant norms. Wedell-Wedellsborg warns that, no matter how principled you are, “the bearings of your moral compass will shift toward the culture of your organisation or team”. Over time, you stop noticing when, for instance, offensive language becomes the norm, or you start to behave in ways that you would never have expected to be part of your repertoire.

  1. Justified neglect

“The human mind is skilled at justifying minor incursions when there is a tangible reward at stake — and when the risk of getting caught is low,” Wedell-Wedellsborg warns. Justified neglect refers to when people don’t speak up about ethical breaches because they are more concerned with immediate rewards, such as staying in the good books of the powerful. “Many leaders have faced a choice between getting the reward or doing the right thing,” Wedell-Wedellsborg continues. “The slippery slope starts right when you begin to rationalise actions and tell yourself and others, ‘This is an exceptional situation'”. These initial slips cascade into more blunders, which turn into habits.

Corporate efforts aside, genuine ethical questions often don’t come with a manual. Moral decision-making frequently relies on personal judgement. Because ethical dilemmas are mostly associated with the controversial or the taboo, people don’t feel comfortable to discuss their inner battles.

Wedell-Wedellsborg says that it can be awkward to admit that you feel torn or unsure about how to proceed. Yet, you must recognise that this is part of your professional growth. Addressing your uncertainty directly and openly (albeit with a trusted friend or confidant) can go a long way to help you solve your dilemma.



Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2019/04/the-psychology-behind-unethical-behavior

Pioneering Minds: https://www.pioneeringminds.com/PQPosts/psychology-behind-unethical-behavior/

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