A while back I made reference to youarenotsosmart.com, a fun blog dedicated to the many ways our brains misfire without our knowledge. Unsurprisingly, our brains also misfire when it comes to ethics, as my Harvard professor Max Bazerman and his colleague Ann Tenbrunsel point out in a recent New York Times piece. It turns out that we're not so ethical, either.
A key misconception most of us have about ethics is that lapses are entirely a matter of choice. People face temptation and, torn between what they know they should do and what they want to do, choose one path or the other. Bazerman and Tenbrunsel show us it's not nearly so simple.
Rather than from overt choices, much of our unethical behavior has its roots in self-delusion. We have "motivated blindness" to overlook unethical behavior in ourselves and in others when it serves our interest to do so. More interestingly, to me at least, is the data showing that many steps we take to prevent unethical behavior can actually increase it.
Fines for compliance and requirements to disclose potential conflicts of interest have been shown to increase the likelihood of unethical behavior by providing mechanisms for self-delusion. Even a token fine turns a dilemma from an ethical one to a financial one. No one thinks a basketball player is a bad person based on the number of technical fouls they rack up, because the detailed system of penalties turns fouls from cheating to just part of the game. In the same way, sanctioning systems in business can result in more violations and cause people to see ethical decisions as economic decisions.
We are ethical beings. We like to maintain a positive self-image and to see ourselves as ethical and moral. Self-delusion can help us maintain this image by hiding the ethical component of decisions. Someone who discloses a conflict of interest may feel that they have done their duty in that regard and be free to let unconscious bias guide their actions. Research shows this bias to be substantial; Bazerman and Tenbrunsel cite the example of auditors who, given identical information, make sharply different assessments of the value of a company depending on whether they think their client is the seller or the buyer.
Negotiators need to factor this into their work. If you are designing a long-term agreement between two parties, for example, you may be working against your interests if you build in penalties and sanctions for performance shortcomings or bad behavior. We should all bear this in mind when examining our own behavior. Ethical dilemmas abound and nearly everyone thinks they are far more ethical than they actually are. You and I are unlikely to be exceptions to this rule.