Leadership and the Rationalization of Immoral Behavior

As a leader, you have to talk about morality and ethics at work. Why? Because it is the only way to prevent the rationalization of immoral behavior. In other words, if you don’t want people to lie, cheat or steal at work, you have to talk about the fact that lying, cheating and stealing is morally wrong and most likely illegal.

So what is exactly is the "rationalization of immoral behavior"? Lets start with an example from MIT:

Ariely and his students went
around and left six-packs of Coke in randomly selected dorm
refrigerators all over campus. When he checked back in a few days, all
of the Cokes were gone.

But when he later placed plates of six loose dollar bills in those
same refrigerators, not a single bill was missing when he checked back.
Even though the value was comparable–and thus the situations were
supposed to be equivalent–people responded in opposite ways. Why is

The people who "took" the cokes, you might say "stole" the cokes, rationalized it as moral. They had to do this because part of human psychology is that we need to think of ourselves as rational and moral beings. We have to think of ourselves as moral, but how if we run around stealing cokes or deceiving investors or turning over business leads to a competitor?

This too has been studied (Bandura, 1990) and rationalization of immoral behavior requires a moral disengagement. That moral disengagement can be done by:

  1. Reconstructing Conduct. The brain says, "hey, I am shooting this car in a drive by but I am on a mission from God!" Basically pointing to a higher cause to justify a smaller immoral action.
  2. Obscuring personal agency. "I was just doing my job" or "that is the way Detroit politics always works and I am just a cog in the machine."
  3. Disregarding negative consequences. This one is hard for me to understand, but as I read about it, it sounds like just not thinking about the consequences. "It’s those OTHER drug dealers who go to jail, not me."
  4. Blaming and dehumanizing victims. Ahhh, this is the workplace one that we see. Find something, anything, a coworker or boss says and "they deserve it" or "for all I do for this place, they don’t pay me enough, I have EARNED this Camcorder I am stealing."

I know from training to work at Circuit City stores years ago the power of the "blaming and dehumanizing victims" element to rationalize theft. Our store had the lowest shrink (retail word for theft) in the district at one time. And a large part of that was because of how well the management team treated the workers. It is harder to dehumanize a good boss than a bad one. Harder, but not impossible.

Sometimes companies make it easy. A cut in benefits will predictably increase theft. And yet really, yes really and truly, the thief doesn’t think they are a thief! They have simply realized internally that to steal they have to find SOME method of justifying it. So they dehumanize their coworkers and say "I am deserved this" and they are bad people so it is OK for me to reduce their profit sharing checks." All the while the thief probably would not take $10 off their desk if left alone.

But what if there is no cut in benefits and the team is treated well?
Well surely that boss will says SOMETHING. Some turn of the phrase that
the brain can jump on. "I didn’t like his tone yesterday" or "She just
thinks she knows everything and takes all the credit" which leads to
"so I get to steal. Yippeee!"

If this is happening to you, or has happened to you as a leader, don’t
feel too bad. You can’t control outside forces and remember that even
Judas dehumanized Christ in order to turn him in. So unless you think
you are better than Jesus, it can and will happen to you as a leader.

How do you address it? The same way colleges do. You talk about it. You have an honor code. You shouldn’t have to, but you do have to according to the likes of Tsang on rationalizing immoral behavior.

As for our firm, we are adopting the Aggie Code of Honor:

An Aggie does not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do.

Will this work? I really don’t know yet. But internally I have to find some way to believe that people aren’t evil. Any advice? I am all ears.