When Good People Do Bad Things

16 May

A piece posted today on bNET, CBS’s Interactive Business Network, asked why “moral” people act unethically. Having read quite a bit about the Holocaust and other extreme acts of violence in humanity’s past, I figured the piece would delve into the standard “banality of evil” argument: that people who do bad deeds are often good (or, at least, morally neutral) people in bad situations.

This explains the Nazi prison guard who emotionally and physically destroys his inmates, only to arrive home at the end of the workday to his loving wife and children. The world of evil isn’t filled with psychopaths and schizophrenics; more often, it’s filled with bread-and-butter folks like you and me.

I was surprised, then, to find a different, equally interesting concept presented in this bNET piece: that people who claim their moral superiority — religious leaders, members of Congress, etc. — are more susceptible to acting unethically precisely because of the pedestal they so proudly place themselves on. As the author of the piece, Jeffrey Pfeffer, writes,

If someone has behaved morally or in some other way established a moral image, that frees the person to subsequently engage in less ethical behavior–sort of the moral equivalent of permitting yourself to eat chocolate cake after you exercised.  For example, one study found that participants asked to write a story referencing their positive traits donated just one-fifth as much as those who had to write a story about their negative traits.

Another experiment in the same paper concluded that this effect occurred because of the impact of the story-writing on participants’ self-concept–people who felt badly about themselves (having made negative traits salient) bolstered their self-image by being more generous, while those who already felt positively about themselves were free to be less generous.  Other research demonstrated that when study participants’ past behavior established their credentials as non-prejudiced individuals, they were more willing to express attitudes that showed prejudice.

While these findings are fascinating in and of themselves, it’s the overall conclusion drawn by Pfeffer, the author, himself that really caught my attention. Pfeffer suggests that we businesspeople (remember, he’s writing for a business publication) should avoid over-praising fellow business(wo)men for ethical behavior, since they may then unconsciously feel entitled to commit unethical acts.

…To encourage the best behavior on your team, it is important to not bestow excessive praise or positive regard, so they feel as if they must continually demonstrate their moral credentials. It is when people feel they have nothing left to prove that they don’t.

This aligns so closely with the business leadership model of the Dignity Movement. Note that Pfeffer doesn’t blame rank for unethical acts; he blames the self-aggrandizing language that the rank makes possible.

And his solution doesn’t call for the abolition of rank; nowhere does he ask for businesses to eliminate their leadership structures. Rather, Pfeffer calls for checks and balances. All leaders should be required to “continually demonstrate their moral credentials.”

In other words, self-proclaimed moral leaders must continually earn their titles. This has been one of the core messages of the Dignity Movement for years now. I’m glad to see that the business community, finally, is coming on board.

Photo credit: JenXer

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