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Why we aren't as ethical as we think we are

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March 21, 2010

People see ethics as getting away with whatever they can while still staying within the ru...

People see ethics as getting away with whatever they can while still staying within the rules while integrity comes from individuals (Image: Zoomstart)

Researchers at the University of Utah have been looking at the psychology of individual decision making in an effort to help organizations better understand thinking patterns in the workplace. The depressing, if a little unsurprising, conclusion is that what we know we should do and what we want to do can be two very different things, in other words, we are not as ethical as we think we are.

Examples of corporate ethics gone horribly wrong like the Enron collapse have prompted academics to focus on the mechanics of decision making within companies.

"The Ethical Mirage: A Temporal Explanation as to Why We Aren't as Ethical as We Think We Are" seeks to address the psychological processes of individuals and how they deceive themselves into thinking they are ethical people.

"Companies typically don't do bad things because they have bad people," said Kristina A. Diekmann, Ph.D., professor of management at the David Eccles School of Business, who co-authored the paper. "When people imagine or predict what they would do in certain situations, they think about what they should do, however, when it comes to actually making decisions, people tend to focus on what they want to do. They are not conditioned to think of the ethical consequences at the time of the decision," Diekmann went on to say. "What is particularly problematic is that when people deceive themselves into thinking they are ethical but don't act accordingly, it encourages the continuation of negative behavior."

An article at Zoomstart.com puts it very well: "ethics is like the tax code. It’s a system where people are looking for loopholes and shelters. They’re looking to get away with whatever they can while still staying within the rules." Integrity, on the other hand, comes from individuals.

Currently much effort is concentrated by organizations toward codes of ethics, charter values, training, and the implementation of procedures that aim to reduce the likelihood of unethical behavior. However, little attention has been afforded to the individual and their perceptions - their innate integrity or lack thereof. The paper aims to help companies better understand thinking patterns in the workplace, and hopes to encourage a more lateral approach to policies. It also produces recommendations for how to change unethical behavior within organizations.

Professor Diekmann's research at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah investigates how individuals behave in organizations, with a focus on negotiation, ethics and fairness, social perception, and impression management. The paper's co-authors include Ann E. Tenbrunsel of the University of Notre Dame, Kimberly A. Wade-Benzoni of Duke University and Max H. Bazerman of Harvard Business School.

The Paper will be published later this year in Research in Organizational Behavior.

Sources: University of Utah, Zoomstart.

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