Leadership and Ethics

In Atlanta, 178 teachers and principals were recently implicated in a pattern of cheating behavior to raise student scores on standardized tests.

In the business world, a trader at a leading global bank lost more than $2 billion on illegal trades, setting off a crisis of confidence that eventually compelled the bank’s CEO to resign.

A highly regarded college coach resigned after it was revealed that he knew his players were profiting the sale of memorabilia and engaging in other unapproved activities. The organization is still waiting for sanctions to be applied.

When headlines like these flash across the news, we often blame the individuals. If only they hadn’t been so greedy or eager to win we say, then those violations wouldn’t have happened. But are rogue individuals the sole reasons for these moral breakdowns?

Anyone who has been placed in a position of authoritative responsibility has also been confronted with the problem of moral failure and many managers spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with employee misconduct. Instead,  leaders who want to foster ethical conduct in their organizations should look beyond the nebulous construct of character and think about incentives that drive otherwise good people to do bad things. Organizational culture and climate as well as psychological and social cues have a great deal to do with whether people choose a high or low road.

We are beginning to learn that human behavior is more dependent on situational and contextual factors than most of us would like to believe. This is especially so when it comes to ethics and morality. Despite our emphasis on developing good character and offering ubiquitous statements about values and belief systems, it appears that what we have come to know as character predicts very little about what we actually do.

Aristotle suggested that we could achieve a virtuous and excellent life by developing good moral habits. By emulating and practicing good behavior from an early age we could develop character that would hold us in good stead when faced with inevitable life challenges. This is compelling and drives much of our contemporary thinking about why people do right or wrong. When people misbehave we commonly refer to them as lacking moral fiber. We see them as flawed individuals and rightly sanction them.

Social psychologists have found that psychological and social cues that arise in specific situations drive much of our behavior. Put in the right situation, even people of strong character are likely to make ethically questionable decisions. It turns out that people are much more variable than the term “of good or bad character” connotes. Those who are very virtuous in one situation are not necessarily so in another. Someone who is heroic today might not be so tomorrow. As an example, we might consider former Congressman Randall H. Cunningham, known to many as “Duke.” He had an extraordinary military record as the only “ace” of the Vietnam era. He was awarded the Navy Cross and two Silver Stars for valor in combat. In 2005 he pled guilty to tax evasion, conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud. He subsequently resigned from Congress and was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison.

Stanford Psychology professor Phillip Zimbardo conducted an experiment that involved randomly sorting volunteer graduate students into two groups: prisoners and guards. The pseudo prisoners were processed as if they had committed a crime and were held in a temporary prison facility constructed in the basement of the psychology department. Those assigned to the role of guards were given uniforms and a set of instructions on how to maintain control of the facility. The experiment that was scheduled for two weeks had to be cancelled after six days because the guards became increasingly brutal while the student inmates began exhibiting troubling reactions to their confinement. Zimbardo used this experiment to assert that the assignment to roles and the psychological and social cues inherent in that situation drove guards to their sadistic behavior and the inmates to theirs. The guards came to act as guards and the inmates acted as we might expect prisoners to act. It was not a matter of good or bad character, but the inevitable pressures of the situation that guided the results of the experiment.

Situations are powerful determinants of our behavior, which has interesting implications for leadership and leader development. Instead of focusing solely on organizational misconduct as behavior that is to be identified and punished as an anomaly, organizations should put additional emphasis on identifying the situational factors including unintended incentives that drive otherwise good people to bad behavior.

This means it might be a good idea to look at patterns of misconduct over time to identify where systemic forces are in play. Are there unreasonable expectations, mismatches between mission and resources, an organizational climate or culture that fosters cheating or gamesmanship in effect? If so, we can either chose to busy ourselves investigating and punishing offenders or take a more systemic perspective and get to some root causes of misbehavior that can have a long-term positive effect. Rather than focusing exclusively on individual cases of misconduct leaders would be well advised to be concerned about establishing an ethical organizational climate.

Dr. George E. Reed is an Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego. He served for 27 years as an Army officer, including six as the Director of Command and Leadership Studies at the U.S. Army War College

This article is from our September, 2011 newsletter. Click here to view all our newsletter articles and features.

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