People develop their ethics as a result of an accumulation of values transmitted by family, friends, culture, religion and experience; and ethics are what tells us ‘this is a right behaviour’ or ‘this is a wrong behaviour’. Generally speaking, we all have developed that sense of good or bad. Then, why do people, with values, sometimes behave unethically? Is there something that triggers that kind of behaviours? Maybe it is worthy to talk about fear and ethics.
An example to think about
Picture this. You’re in your last year of university, and you’re preparing for the final exams with no time to get ready for everything. Grades are important. You need to pass.
In one of the courses, the professor will give the same exam to two different groups in different times. Some of your friends, somehow, get a copy of the exam after the first group took it.
They are now trying to memorize the right answers. You don’t look at the exam but … just ask them what topics you should focus on.
Let’s have a look at how fear conditions our responses.
When we feel fear – in this case of failing – our ability for problem-solving or developing a critical thinking just falls down. If we feel a lot of fear, we’re directly hijacking by our amygdala (that tiny part of our brain whose only function is making us survive). Therefore, all our ethical thinking conditioned by years of education, culture and experience evaporates.
If we have enough fear, and we need to choose between failing or passing the exam, there will not be any doubt. Maybe and because we have strong values, we choose not to cheat too much (and only ask for some clues). But, at the end of the day, we are cheating the same. Or not?
This is the point where we trigger our mechanisms of moral disengagement. Human beings, we have a variety of tools to avoid feeling guilty about our unethical behaviours.
About this situation, we have our reasons: I’m not cheating, I’ve just asked for some clues. It was not me taking the exam. They behaved worst; they are who are taking the advantage. It was their decision and I only made some questions. At the end of the day, it’s not very significant; it is only an exam and, I deserve to pass.
Mechanisms of moral disengagement
We can take the former statement as a good example of several mechanisms of moral disengagement. We need this because we need to justify ourselves: we know we behaved bad.
- Moral justification: The behaviour is serving worthy purposes.
I need to finish the course. It’s about my future.
- Diffusion of responsibility: The action is attributed to group decisions, excluding personal responsibility.
They took the exam. I only made questions.
- Distortion of the consequences: Harmful consequences are minimized.
It’s not very significant (it has no other consequences).
What is the impact of this moral disengagement when leading teams?
I’ve already talked about the impact of the leader’s behaviour in teams and the importance of leading by example. If we allow ourselves to get caught on this moral disengagement mechanism triggered by fear (fear of not getting results, fear of not being promoted, for example) we are giving a poor example that others follow.
Developing a good business ethics requires education and guidance. And leaders need to set the example.