Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Why Good People Do Bad Things At Work

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 16 (conclusion)

In my last post, I wrote about a meta-study of over 49,000 people that identified three drivers of unethical behavior at work: people, circumstances, and the corporate culture.  The last post focused on unethical people.  This post examines the elements of circumstances and corporate culture that can lead to unethical decisions.

Circumstance-centric drivers of unethical behavior

When the researchers analyzed what about a given situation can lead to an ethical or unethical decision, it basically came down to one thing: how does the decision maker perceive the consequence to other people?  With a perception of more immediate, severe, or local consequences, an unethical decision is less likely. Conversely, people are more likely to make an unethical decision if the potential consequences are long term, less severe, or will impact people far away.

Cultural drivers of unethical behavior correlate with the values of the organization.

As I have tried to demonstrate throughout this chapter, corporate culture is largely defined by the values and behavior, and certain cultures are more likely to encourage corporate idolatry.  In a similar way, Treviño’s research has shown that it is possible to identify certain elements of corporate culture that encourage unethical behavior.  A company with an “everyone for himself” mentality is much more likely to see unethical behavior than a culture that emphasizes the “wellbeing of multiple stakeholders such as employees, customers and community.”[i]

In addition, the presence of a written code of conduct did not correlate with ethical decisions, but “a properly enforced code of conduct can be a powerful influence on unethical choices.”[ii]  In other words, this paper reinforces the notion that actions and behaviors are the only true test of a value system.  The authors warn that “performance management systems that reward individual bottom-line achievement (no matter how it is achieved) and that failure to discipline self-serving behavior” are likely to give rise to a climate that tolerates unethical decisions.[iii]

As I studied the transcripts from the 80 hours of interviews I conducted for this book, I found corporate idolatry is influenced by the same three things: people, circumstances, and corporate culture.  The details, however, are different.  For example, Trevino found that age does not correlate with ethical behavior, I think it does correlate with corporate idolatry.

So on to Part II of Busting Your Corporate Idol.  The corporate ladder revisited is three chapters that examine how people, circumstances, and corporate culture contribute to a life of corporate idolatry.

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[i] Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):21

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work

How the Experts Characterize a "Bad Apple" At Work

One bad apple spoils the bunch via Flickr

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 15

Earlier in the chapter, I argued that corporate idolatry is not the same thing as unethical business behavior.   However, there is significant overlap, and I read the business ethics literature in hopes of learning what drives people towards idolatry.

I hit the jackpot with a paper by Linda Treviño, one of the leaders in the field of business ethics.[i]  Treviño and colleagues did a meta-analysis of 136 prior publications studying the causes of unethical behavior, with a total sample size of 43,914 people.  Not surprisingly, any attempt to quantify human behavior is complicated, with many interdependent factors.  Nevertheless, there are enough people to do some real statistics, and what the framework she provided helped me understand the 80 hours of interviews I conducted as background for this book.  Unethical decisions at work can be traced to three sources: people, circumstances, and the overall company culture.[ii]

People-centric drivers of unethical behavior

In general, Trevino showed that people who look out for number one are more likely to make unethical choices.  In addition, the data showed a statistically significant correlation between unethical behavior and the following personality characteristics:

  • a relative moral philosophy (i.e. values change with circumstances, which also is one of the key characteristics of idolatry.)
  • a propensity to manipulate others
  • an inability to see a connection between his or her own actions and consequences to other people

Equally interesting were the characteristics that did not correlate with unethical choices:

  • age
  • gender
  • education
  • level within the organization.

The latter finding was particularly disturbing to the authors because “integrity tests are most often used with lower level employees.”[iii]

Go to the next post to learn how circumstances and corporate culture impact ethical decisions.

Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work is an excerpt from my book Busting Your Corporate Idol, the Five Star Best Seller on Amazon.

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[i] Linda Treviño is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics, and Director of the Shoemaker Program in Business Ethics in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University.  She is the author of over 70 articles as well as several books.

[ii]   Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work.  Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):1-31. Abstract.

[iii] Ibid p.20

Why You Shouldn’t Let the Company Provide Your Moral Compass

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 14

Let me be clear: I think corporations are fantastic at creating goods and services – they enlist cooperation on a level not possible with any other system.  However, even Adam Smith, who coined the term “The Invisible Hand Of the Market” understood that free markets were good for maximizing economic value, and not moral value. A corporation is created to make money, i.e. increase revenue and minimize costs.  Just as a real person will strive to survive and thrive in the fiercely competitive natural world, the artificial person seeks to survive and thrive in the highly competitive economy.  But there is one key difference: a person’s struggle for survival is tempered by our capacity for moral reasoning, while a company is incapable of any moral agency.

Let me give you an example that seems obvious today: child labor.  I don’t know when the first moral issues about child labor were raised, but in the United States, the first state to make child labor illegal was Massachusetts in 1832.  At the Federal level, child labor was not illegal until 1938.  So what happened in between?  According to The Child Public Education Labor Project  “Growing opposition to child labor in the North caused many factories to move to the South.  By 1900, states varied considerably in whether they had child labor standards and in their content and degree of enforcement.”

Lets unpack this: there were a heterogeneous set of laws, and presumably child labor was less expensive or more productive than adult labor.  So a factory in a state where child labor was illegal was at a disadvantage when compared to a state without regulations.  Based on the numbers, the business case was strong to move the factory.  The only thing to keep it behind would be a moral argument.  But in my experience, it is hard for a morality-based argument to beat a numbers-based business case, especially if inaction could threaten the future viability of the business.

Now, I grant that some companies have cultures that do try to adhere to standards other than the numbers.  (I reject the notion that there are “good” companies on the same grounds that I reject the concept of “evil” companies.) But whatever company you are in, I would not trust them to set my moral compass.  They simply cannot detect moral issues.  Asking a company to do the right thing is like asking a blind person to pick out the blue shirt.  They can pick a shirt based on size or texture, or maybe even a label that says “blue” in brail.  But they do not have the sensory apparatus to know the difference between blue and red.

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Did Tom Peters Warn Us Of The Danger Of Corporate Idolatry?

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol, Part 13

In his article “What Is So Terrible About Idolatry?” Rabbi Tzvi Freeman connects a culture of idolatry to the dangers of hierarchy.  “[In the pagan world] Rulers found that a good mix of secret knowledge and convenient mythology could be an instrument of power over the populace; that by controlling the flow of knowledge they were able to hold the people in awe and obedience.”

Leadership guru Tom Peters also wrote of the dangers of hierarchy in his book In Search of Excellence. Peters found that the “Excellent” companies had strong central values brought the organization cohesion.  Peters rightly points out that people crave meaning in their lives, and a company that can provide its employees meaning will motivate them to work harder. (For more, see this post.)

But Peters also recognizes the danger and downside of this dynamic for individual employees.  “So strong is the need for meaning in fact that most people will yield a fair degree of latitude or freedom to institutions that give it to them.” He goes on to argue that the unscrupulous will use the drive for meaning as a means to exert power for its own sake.[i]

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that everyone in company management abuses their power and is only in it for the money.  And I’m also not arguing that everyone else is caught up in the company mystique. But at the same time, we cannot pretend that those dynamics don’t exist.

Learning to recognize the motivations of the people you work with will be covered in the next chapter in great detail.

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[i] In Search Of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies.  Thomas J Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper and Row (1982) p 77-78

Corporate Idolatry Is Not The Same As Business Ethics

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol, Part 12

As I wrote earlier in the book, idolatry carries a strong negative connotation because it is considered one of the worst sins. According to traditional Judaism, for example, idolatry is considered as bad as murder or incest.  I think some people recoil when I use the term corporate idolatry because they work for a good company, and see themselves as making ethical decisions at work.  So let me spend a moment on business ethics to explain how they do and do not correlate with idolatry.

According to the business ethics literature, an unethical behavior is one that violates widely accepted (societal) moral norms.  This usually covers behaviors like theft, fraud, and lying to customers. And from Chapter 2, what is the most widely held standard of right and wrong?  The Golden Rule, found in religions and philosophies from all over the world.  (For more, see The Search For Universal Values II: The Golden Rule.)

So based on all of this, I think its fair to say that if someone consistently makes unethical work decisions, they are following a value system that violates the Golden Rule and are therefore committing idolatry.

But there is a class of behavior that is not unethical that I still consider corporate idolatry – chronic overwork, particularly chronic overwork by choice.

What happens to people who are chronically overworked?  They more frequently make mistakes, have higher rates of injury, have higher rates of depression, and lower overall life satisfaction.[i]   In other words, chronic overwork is very unhealthy, and violates The Rule Of Self Preservation, which makes it another form of idolatry.

Statistics aside, if you talk to someone about a time when they were working too much, they describe a stressful, unhappy life.  I asked “Elaine” a former general manager of a high profile business division what her life was like when the business was struggling in the market. “It was like hell.  I don’t know any other way to put it.”

Hell, interesting choice of word.

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[i] Questions and Answers about OVERWORK: A Sloan Work and Family Research Network Fact Sheet. (Last Updated May 2009). https://workfamily.sas.upenn.edu/sites/workfamily.sas.upenn.edu/files/imported/pdfs/overwork.pdf