Defining ethics: 6 reasons good people do bad things

Creating a culture of ethics begins with ourselves

The majority of us consider ourselves good people.  Under one percent of men have a psychopathic profile, and the proportion is even lower for women. Yet, people still do bad things: our latest research explains why.

Broadly, there are six reasons or psychological contexts which lead to bad behaviour. In this series, we’ll look at two different reasons per post, and explain how to mitigate against that risk. We are going to start small and work our way up to the more serious factors. The first two factors wouldn’t be out of place in a playground.

To learn more about how to create an ethical culture, download our white paper: The only way is ethics: why good people do bad things and how to stop us.

1.Everyone else is

Would you speak to someone whilst maintaining eye contact with someone else? Or brush your teeth or apply deodorant at your desk? Let’s say you board a train carriage that’s entirely empty but for one person… do you sit right next to them?

There’s always an exception, but most of us will answer these with a ‘no’. There are unspoken rules that compel us to behave in a prescribed way. We may not even be aware of them, but they shape what we do each and every day. What are these unspoken rules that define our world?

They’re often called social norms, and they arise because of the behaviour of those around us. It’s a silently agreed code of conduct – what we can get away with and what we can’t.

But they do more than stop us from clipping our toenails during meetings… social norms can have a dark side. If the unsaid rules tell us that it’s normal to claim expenses that weren’t work-related or lie to customers, we’re much more likely to feel fine about unethical behaviour.

We need to consider the social norms in our own workplace. It can help to hold conversations on what social norms are acceptable and what it means to be ethical, but there’s more you can do to create an ethical climate at work.

2. It’s not fair

‘It’s not fair!’. These three words might seem like a playground protest, but feelings of being unfairly treated stay with us way past our school years.

If someone asks you what percentage of housework you do, we’re afraid research shows us that most of us overestimate. The combined estimates from couples consistently exceed more than 100%. It takes time to do the housework, so our own contribution sticks out in our mind as more significant than the short minute it takes to notice the other person’s efforts. And once we think there’s a difference in effort, we seek evidence which confirms that belief. We notice when they don’t do the washing up and ignore the times they do.

If everyone experiences a slightly different reality biased in their favour, ‘perceived unfairness’ is going to prey on our minds – and that includes the workplace. Researchers have found that when we feel unfairly treated, we try to redress the balance. At work, this can affect productivity, or even lead to small acts of bad behaviour such as turning up late – or it can mean larger, more damaging acts of sabotage.

How can we increase workplace loyalty, and help people see fairness where they otherwise might perceive inequality, bias or discrimination?

Related solutions:
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