Acting Ethically: Most Try but Fall Short
Most people strive to be ethical and fall short. That is in part because humans are inherently flawed and sometimes can’t resist taking shortcuts. Also, they often don’t take all components of an issue into account before making a decision.
To remedy this, two business ethicists recommend that people do a better job of planning before they make decisions and then evaluate the effectiveness of decisions.
Those are among the points in Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It (Princeton University Press, 191 pp., $24.95), an academic take on the subject that is quite accessible to general readers.
Max H. Bazenman, an ethics professor at Harvard Business School, and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, a business professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, spend most of the book outlining the problem and then offer a practical series of steps to improve an organization’s ethical culture.
They contend that ethical judgments are often based on factors that the decision maker isn’t even aware of. One manifestation of this is the concept of bounded ethicality, when people limit their analysis to the information on hand rather than requesting information that might be relevant to dealing with the particular situation at hand.
One reason this occurs is because organizations are so big that certain issues are broken up among several departments.
"Only when the boundaries are removed does the ethical impact of the decision become clear. Armed with an understanding of the reasons ethical fading occurs, employees can uncover the power and often dangerous informal values that influence their behavior and effectively diagnose the ethical ‘sinkholes’ in their organizations."
The authors’ recommendations for improving ethical behavior include: plan actions appropriately and have a realistic assessment of your strengths and weaknesses; train yourself to give voice to your "should self," rather than your "want self"; and identify hidden but powerful values within your organization that can improve its ethical culture.
To be sure, many of the authors’ recommendations may be easier said than done. That is why doing the right thing isn’t always synonymous with doing what comes naturally.