In an earlier post about ethical consideration in project management I referred to a book written by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, titled “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It” (note: affiliate link).
“Blind Spots” is a refreshing and highly recommended book for anyone who has the slight inclination to better understand the social and environmental pressures affecting our ethical behavior. The key question the authors are attempting to deal with is the obvious one: Most people will rate their values, attitudes and behaviors as being ethical. If such is the case, how can this get reconciled with the fact that some of these claiming to have behaved in an ethical manner are judged by society as being unethical?
The authors introduce us to a number of key definitions:
Ethical Fading – “the tendency for otherwise ethical people to make unethical decisions because the ethical implications have faded from their decision“.
Bounded Ethicality – “the systematic way in which people engage in unethical behavior without their own awareness“. Bounded Ethicality refers to our “cognitive limitations that can make us unaware of the moral implications of our decisions”.
The authors explain the reason for which ethical and codes of conduct cannot deliver the results for which they were published. The key reason why these do not work is because such Codes are predicated on the false assumption that individuals recognize an ethical dilemma when they come across it or when it is presented to them. The reality, however, is quite different as the forces of ethical fading and bounded ethicality work against us and blind us from seeing the ethical dilemma, with the result being that our response can lack the ethical dimension is rightly deserves.
While it is the responsibility of individuals to make decisions and thus adhere to and follow ethical principles they are subject to and operate within a set of formal and informal ethical ‘vibes’ they flow through their respective organization.
While organizations, in the main, are committed to following and implementing ethical codes of behavior, these are not the main determinants of how employees are likely to behave. Examples are abound in the book, but to summarize; if the culture in the organization is not “pro ethical” and implicit messages are ambivalent or discouraging; the chances are that employees will take it as a sign of encouragement that ethical behavior is not important.
It is easy to see how this might transpire in a project environment. When management is breathing down the project manager’s neck and demanding him or her to do “what ever it takes” to get the project delivered “on time”, what are the chances that the PM will cascade that pressure on to the project team and thus put the team in an untenable situation where they are forced to work long hours, weekends, etc. such that their personal lives are sacrificed and compromised in the name of the project’s “greater good”?
It is exactly at the junction point where “business considerations” are pushed to the forefront and ethical considerations are ignored that such unethical decisions are likely to emerge.
The book suggests a number of “remedies” to deal with such likely behavior, and I will mention one these approaches here:
As mentioned in an earlier post, our decision making process is subjected to the influences of two systems: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the one we invoke when we make automatic, seemingly thoughtless decisions. System 2 is the one we invoke when we make conscious and rational decisions. “Our intuitive System 1 responses are more likely to be immoral than our more reflective System 2 thoughts“.
One of the ways to prepare oneself for the decision time is to think and prepare in advance about the motivations that are likely to influence oneself at the time the decision will be made. This level of preparedness is likely to result in System 1 responding in a manner more in-line with the person’s value system, compared with one who has not gone through this initial mental exercise.
The book is full of gems and detailed studies and field cases relevant to the topic of understanding how we are likely to behave and the impact that society and our organization is having on our likely ethical behavior.
Highly recommended reading.