Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

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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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).

Noogler or Mini-Me? Who Will Thrive In Your Company’s Culture?

Picture from B roll

Noogler in New York Office

Chapter 3: The Real American Idol part 11

Who gets ahead in the corporate world?  How often is it the smartest, most qualified person, and how often is it someone picked due to connections or politics?  Of course it’s not an either or, but the higher someone goes in the company, the more the soft skills matter. One person’s style may work very well in one company, and be a flop in another.  As important as it is to learn to “flex your style” I think it equally important to understand how inflexible corporate culture can be, so you can find the right fit for you.

So how does a particular culture evolve?  It starts with the founders, and is propagated through continuing hires over time.  Google, for example, is extremely deliberate about the type of people they are looking for, and has built an interview process looking to find “Googleyness.”

We want to get a feel for what makes you, well, you. We also want to make sure this is a place you’ll thrive, so we’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.[i]

New hires (aka Nooglers) go through a specific series of steps to become acclimated to Google, which sometimes even wearing a fraternity pledge style hat.

While Google takes great pains to foster an anti-hierarchical culture, that is not always the case in the corporate world.  Many managers are looking for the Mini-Me.  Mini-Me was a character in the Austin Powers movies, a clone of the villain Dr. Evil.  Mini Me is a favorite, because he rarely speaks and just mimics the expressions of Dr. Evil.  Funny stuff, and I laughed when a senior manager used the analogy to describe the “big boss.”  In her words

Within a business unit, there were favorites based on behavior [that come from the] guy at the top.  If you fit what he liked, you did well.  He didn’t appreciate diversity.  He wanted the Mini Me, everyone [to be] like him exactly.

Whether your company is looking for its version of the Googler, or allows pockets of Mini-Me, the general point is the same – a corporate culture will select for a certain kind of person, perhaps more accurately a certain kind of behavior.

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What Are The Shared Values In Your Organization?

McKinsey 7S Model

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 7 – UPDATED 8/10

As we have seen in the previous chapters, idolatry goes beyond the literal definition of statue worship to include excessive devotion and/or blind adoration for an entity, idea, or force of nature.  Moreover, this “idol worship” brings with it adoption of a value system other than the universal value system espoused by the Golden Rule*. (More on Universal Values here.)  Value systems are important because they define the accepitble boundaries of human behavior.  Corporate idolatry, then, has something to do with the adoption of a value system that permits a different set of behaviors than those permitted by The Golden Rule.

In the corporate world, the whole concept of values gets muddy because many corporations have a written set of positive “values” that frankly are more slogan than substance[i].  If you are wondering “What Are The Shared Values In Your Organization?” look at what people do, not what they say. True values are what drive actual behavior, and they can be positive or negative. I find the McKinsey 7S framework particularly relevant model for organizational behavior.  It categorizes 7 elements that together categorize a company.  (See the image).  Shared values are placed in the center because they touch and define the boundaries of all other aspects of the business, just as personal values touch and define the boundaries of behavior in a person.  One of the biggest implications of 7S is that real change in an organization will not happen unless the shared values of the company change.  Let me give you an example.

I interviewed multiple people from a Silicon Valley company about its transition a few years ago as its revenue surpassed $250 million dollars annually.  The company had become large enough that the ad-hoc decision making was no longer effective, and product development was impeded by political infighting.  The company sought to solve the problem through systems and staff.  It hired a consulting company to deploy a new product development governance system.  The system worked beautifully for a year – the product launches were streamlined, and groundbreaking.  Customers were happy, revenues were through the roof, and the company was considered best in class by Wall Street.

But it didn’t last.  The executive running product development was demoted, and soon left the company.  Within a year or two product development once again political and ineffective, and revenues suffered.  Why did this happen?  From the perspective of someone who was caught in the trenches at the time, it made no sense and wasn’t rational. In the context of shared values, it does.

The values of the organization, (propagated by the founder/CEO) did not reward operational issues, or believe in customer feedback.  The CEO had a certain vision of the world, and thought development resources should be concentrated on pushing the core technology, as opposed to the usability features requested by customers.  And his vision was shared by a significant portion of the executive team, who were hired and promoted for that very reason.  There was a mythical belief that all the company needed to do was to create more powerful hardware and the customers would love it.

In summary, there was a disconnect between the company’s shared values and the new process.  The shared values won. 

Note: This post is an excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.

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* Treat others as you would like to be treated in a similar circumstance.

[i] What Do Corporate Values Really Mean? Published on February 7, 2010 by Ray Williams in Wired for Success retrieved August 12, 2012