Mentoring Moment: Ethics

Is it still cheating even when you think you are helping others?

We have all seen situations where we wonder why certain decisions have been made, and, sometimes the decision seems to conflict with our personal standards of ethics. In fact, the importance of personal and professional ethics has become so important that many colleges make ethics a required course. Think about Enron, Parmalat, Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff and the Wall Street debacle caused by phony baloney home loans, and you will see what I mean.Wally dabbles in crime

This Mentoring Moment (MM) is about intellectual honesty and ethics, and in particular the rationalization of questionable decisions that are made on the basis that the decision maker is not just furthering his or her personal interests but also the interests of others – making it is OK to cheat and be unethical. This is a particularly dangerous type of situational ethics leading to intellectual dishonesty. Hopefully, you chuckled a bit and agree with me that Wally in not on the right track.

Research has identified a number of axioms in the area. Here are just a few:

  • Ethical dilemmas occur regularly and often involve resolution of differing interests (or conflicting positions): by behaving ethically, people are able to maintain their positive self-image and personal ethos; by behaving unethically, they can advance their self-interest
  • People often resolve this conflict through “creative” reassessments and self-serving rationalizations, such that they can act dishonestly enough to profit from their unethicality, but honestly enough to maintain a positive self-image
  • When individuals have the opportunity to cheat in situations where the probability of being caught and reputational costs are minimized, most people cheat
  • People are more likely to engage in unethical behavior if they split the spoils of such behavior with another person than when they are the only ones benefiting from it because they find it easier to discount the moral concerns associated with unethical behavior that benefits another person than to discount behavior that only benefits oneself

At this point, let me offer an example.

Major League Baseball star pitcher Andy Pettitte was recently accused of using human growth hormones, a substance banned by the League. In a public admission, Pettitte said he did not take the drug “to try to get an edge on anyone,” nor “to try to get stronger, faster, or to throw harder.” Rather, he took the substance in an effort to get off the disabled list so that he “would not let his team down.” That is, he justified the unethical decision by saying, while the banned substance did allow him to get back to the game faster and stronger, it helped the team more. Therefore, it was an acceptable decision.

Are you convinced by this explanation that he acted with intellectual honesty and good ethics? Does it matter if you represent the League? What if you were on another team? What if you were on the Team and his actions allowed him to get back on the mound to help you win a World Series Championship? What if you were a vendor at the stadium and stood to make more money if the team had more fans at the ballpark and played mores games?

How many of the four axioms listed above do you find triggered in the Pettitte scenario? What would you do? Would your decision be different if we were not talking about the Yankees and the significant money involved in winning a World Series? What if you were faced with a minor deviation from your company’s accounting procedures?

Before you answer, please consider these recent findings from Harvard:

  • Dishonest behavior increases as the number of people benefiting from the dishonesty rises
  • Cheating motivated by potential benefits to others helps wrongdoers feel less guilty about their own actions and helps the wrongdoer feel like he or she is preserving their moral self-image and personal ethos
  • When there are other beneficiaries of people’s dishonest actions in addition to themselves, they perceive their unethical behavior to be morally acceptable and justified
  • Concern for the outcome and the well-being of others can lead people to behave unethically when they feel that they are in the same position as others involved (those they think they are helping) or when they otherwise feel empathy toward the beneficiaries of their dishonesty

Many unethical actions, including, cheating and lying, are motivated by the benefits these actions accrue to others (clearly, if someone lies or cheats solely for their own benefit, the ethical issues are much clearer, right? Think back to Wally, above.). Consider the “white lies” parents tell their children to prompt better outcomes for their children, such as “Santa Claus will come down the chimney if you behave” or “If you don’t eat your veggies, your hair won’t grow.” These examples highlight how the potential benefits to others can motivate a person’s own lies. However, many of the lies do not only benefit others, but also bear direct benefits to the self: the behavior of the children may improve and the meal may get finished without open warfare breaking out in the home with a “little white lie.”

OK, what does this have to with work?

I need another Dilbert to cross over to that subject. Please bear with me. When you stop laughing (and wondering if Scott Adams is talking about your group, again) come back to the text, Ok?Dilbert Analysis.png

There are numerous implications where situational ethics are triggered at work. One obvious area relative to this MM is the basic way we work: we try to have a collaborative work environment and team approaches are encouraged by management. Most companies offer training in the areas of ethics and honesty and there is “Self Help” is available through the Intranet . This MM is offered merely to complement other training and information sources you have in hand.

Self-managed or empowered teams are one of the most prevalent groups in modern corporations, including ours. In these teams, decision making authority is delegated to individual members who are in charge of making decisions with consequences for their peers and their organization. The upside to empowerment of the team can be overwhelmed by the downsides of the increased moral flexibility induced by the presence of others. Group think tends to dilute the levels of honesty and the standards of ethics any single member of the team has. Thus, one implication can be that some members of team should not be a part of the social circle of the group, and another is the recognition that good people who care about their coworkers can in fact end up cheating more.

So, as you move ahead in your collaborative teams, keep in mind the role of ethics, intellectual honesty and the core value of integrity. The temptation to push through a decision or make a recommendation to senior management that is not well reasoned, based largely on expediency or that is too easily rationalized on a basis of questionable ethics is very powerful. The nature of teams makes peer pressure a daunting factor to deal with, especially when you are in a minority position or when you do not have “seniority” among the group members. Sometimes, it takes leadership and a strong will to stand up for what is right. When the team is about to be overpowered by the temptation to rationalize an ethically unclear decision on the basis that, while the decision may help complete a team’s goal or tasks, it’s ethical issues are justified because other people will benefit, too, run for cover.

Today, ethics is not just for attorneys anymore.

Sources: Working paper on Self-Serving Altruism, HBS, Sept 2012; “Wearing two different hats: moral decisions may depend on the situation”, Leavitt, The Academy of Management Journal, May 2012, and Dilbert

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Steve is an active mentor and leader. He has been involved in leadership and mentoring roles for many years. He writes on leadership topics and has a very active following.

He has been a trusted advisor to Leadership Voices and provided tremendous insights and advise as was forming late in 2012.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • It is said that we are who we really are in the quiet of our own private moments, not the bright sunshine of the day.

    • Aure

      “There is none righteous, no, not one.”

  • Ken

    Bill Hybels often writes on this topic. I am specifically thinking of his book WHO YOU ARE WHEN NO ONE IS LOOKING.

  • Dan DeVries

    The book, “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout describes and warns of the 5% of the population who are clinically Sociopathic and who act without conscience, without regret, and without even a second thought to do something immoral, unethical, or even illegal in order to benefit themselves. Although scary and perhaps cause to consider whether unfortunate circumstances or coincidences in our past were actually the willful acts of a sociopath, the concept is fairly easy to get our heads around and label as wrong because the willful disregard for negative consequences is propagated by pure, selfish desire.
    What you describe here, Steve, is much more of a moral dilemma for some. Where the sociopath does not even care or try to justify their injurious or questionable actions, the individuals that you describe here face a constant need to justify, explain, or defend, to themselves if not to others (i.e., if they don’t get caught). A life, and even a leadership style, based upon situational ethics rather than moral absolutes is not only open to question by those who would disagree on an absolute basis, but also by those whose intellect or world view would cause them to interpret the situation differently.
    Interestingly, I find myself conflicted about the situations like Andy Pettitte’s. While I would have no question that what he did was technically wrong, and any punishment or repercussions that he faced were deserved and self-inflicted, I can easily fall into the trap of comparing his actions relative to others. When his act of trying to just get back to his normal level of play quicker is compared to the player who used HGH or other PHD’s purely to improve their performance and gain an unfair advantage over those who’s moral character required them to strictly follow the rules, it seems a somewhat natural reaction to rate Andy’s actions as less egregious. But I greatly appreciate and ultimately share your perspective of the importance of staying intellectually honest and true to your core values. There are those (including those who benefitted) that likely approve, or at least do not disapprove, of Pettitte’s use of HGH. But I would also venture to say that nobody could have reasonably criticized the decision to refuse the use of banned substances and simply work as hard as he could within the system to recover and return to the roster. That’s not to say that avoidance of criticism is the goal, as that is certainly not necessarily a requirement of leadership. But I think that being beyond reproach is.

    • Aure

      A sociopath is a criminal who has not been caught yet.

      • Aure

        A quote from 1 Cor 6:9-11 – Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (ESV)

  • Aure

    If morality is relative, there is not much to discuss. “And every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

  • Aure

    I suppose that, from a strictly human perspective, if everyone came out a ‘winner’ as a result of one’s actions, then nobody would call it into question, as was the case with Sodom and Gomorrah where the whole town practiced sodomy. The only problems is, there was one household that did not.

  • Steve Petronio

    I have written on situational ethics a few times and have read lots about it. Morality cannot be relative to be a solid social construct. There can be no winners without a sound moral basis. History shows this repeatedly.

    • Aure

      Hi Steve, no disagreement from me on that one. Morality must be absolute. But on what basis? A social contract? If so, then I would contend that it is still relative.

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