Hard to Do the Right Thing?

Well, we are kind of wired for self-preservation. We are the most dependent species on the planet, and to get what we want we have learned as children how to control the external environment. Even to the extent we disregard our own bad behavior as being necessary to achieve our goals. We wobble on ethics and judge ourselves harshly for a short time, and become very self critical. This lasts until we do bad things again and it leads to good short term results. We cheat on a test to get a good grade, steal an idea at work to get a promotion, or bend the truth and make money or keep a friend.

Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no-one is watching.” -C. S. Lewis

Dr. Muel Kaptein, Professor of Business Ethics and Integrity Management at the Rotterdam School of Management, has studied bad behavior for decades. Also below are several modified comments from Travis Bradberry. Based on their wisdom and knowledge, here are 7 key steps on what motivates good people to do bad things:

1. Tolerating the small infraction. One might think that taking small things from the workplace, like notebooks, pens, and computer paper, is harmless. But when small thefts are ignored by management, people become far more likely to up the ante. Big bad things happen because of teeny tiny wobbles of ethics on small stuff, even when no one is looking. You are in a taxi (pre-uber) and as you arrive at your destination, the driver hands you two receipts. What do you do?

a. Take both receipts for your expense account.
b. Take both, and save one for a rainy day, to add to a later expense report.
c. Say, “No, thank-you I just need the one.”

2. Fix the tray table. Airlines have learned to be extremely diligent to fix any minor problem, even tray table issues, quickly. They are aware their bad behavior on these minor issues gives every passenger a perception of bad behavior in all areas of the airline, including engine maintenance. Perception of bad behavior in one area gives license for bad behavior in more important areas.

3. The compensation effect. We use good deeds to balance out bad deeds, or alternately, we give ourselves breaks from goodness – like a piece of chocolate after a week of salads. This makes people more inclined to do bad things under the guise of “I’m a good person” or “It’s just this one thing.” In Travis, research people were observed lying and cheating more after they made the decision to purchase products that were good for the environment. In one simulation, the decision to give more to charity was more likely after bad behavior lead to great income in a board game.

4. We use labels to minimize bad behavior. Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, was famous for saying, “Doing business is a game, the greatest game in the world if you know how to play it.” Something as simple as calling business a game can make people less likely to see that their actions have serious, real-world consequences.

5. Perceptual blindness.  Dan Simon research at Indiana University, clarifies that we get so focused on a specific task, goal, or deadline, particularly under stress, that we miss critically important information, like others feelings and ethics. Our organizations increase this “focus” with emphasis on personal bonus, recognition, promotion, and money, all for task completion, rather than caring for others – which they claim to be their greater goal.

6. The Pygmalion effect. If employees are treated like they’re upright members of a team, they’re more likely to act accordingly. Alternately, if they’re treated with suspicion, they’re more likely to act in a way that justifies that perception.

7. A selfish atmosphere gets created. When companies splash money around, they contribute to unethical behavior. Flashy displays of wealth lead to increased selfishness. Employees either aim hard for these carrots or develop jealousy of their high-rolling colleagues who achieve them. This leads to people who are more likely to put their own needs ahead of doing the right thing.

Doing bad is less about the size of the deed and more about small misdeeds building momentum.

You’re Going the Wrong Way!


  1. There’s also a question of who we feel we are accountable to If you believe in an all powerful, all-seeing God that might make you less likely to ignore the small infractions. Listen to David Bowie’s ‘God knows I’m Good’ for a moral tale on this.

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