Stumbling Into Bad Behavior

Author: Max Tenbrunsel

It’s easy to look at big names like Warren E. Buffett, and big companies like Ernst and Young, and be judgmental. Of course they overlooked ethical lapses. Why wouldn’t they? That’s business.

Regulators, prosecutors and journalists tend to focus on corruption caused by willful actions or ignorance. But in our research, and in the work of other scholars who study the psychology of behavioral ethics, we have found that much unethical conduct that goes on, whether in social life or work life, happens because people are unconsciously fooling themselves. They overlook transgressions — bending a rule to help a colleague, overlooking information that might damage the reputation of a client — because it is in their interest to do so.

When we are busy focused on common organizational goals, like quarterly earnings or sales quotas, the ethical implications of important decisions can fade from our minds. Through this ethical fading, we end up engaging in or condoning behavior that we would condemn if we were consciously aware of it.

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