Conduct Risk — The Psychology of Ethical Behaviours

Ever since the beginning of our civilization, ethics have always been a topic of interest for the bright minds of our society. From Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato to Confucius and Buddha, the philosophers and spiritual leaders that have left a mark on our society saw ethics as the discipline that would cultivate stability both at an individual and social level.

Unfortunately, the competitive environment we currently live in can sometimes ‘force’ us to cut corners, break the rules, and put ethics aside in favor of money, influence, power, and other gains. A combination of various cultural and social factors has led to an ethics crisis both at an individual and social level. We can see the effects of unethical behavior in our personal lives when we enjoy hanging out with friends and speaking ill of others, and at work when we abuse our position of power to exert influence.

At first glance the reason why sometimes, we deviate from our ethical code (or even abandon ethics altogether) seems pretty obvious — the gains of unethical behaviors overshadow the benefits of following a strict ethicalcode.

But why do ethical behaviors exist in the first place? How do we develop an ethicalcode? And most importantly, what are the foundations of an ethicalmind?

Before we get to these questions, first we need to determine what ethics is all about.

What is Ethics?

In broad lines, Ethics is a philosophical science that studies morality as one of the most importantaspects of human and social existence. At the same time, ethics is also a scientific discipline that focuses on tackling two significantissues: 1) theoretical issues regarding the essence and nature of morality and 2) questions about people should live their lives based on a set of norms and principles.

At first glance, ethics sounds a lot like morality. In fact, most people think ethics and morality are two interchangeable constructs. But while ethics is an interdisciplinary domain that draws explanations from various humanities, morality is mainly a set of rules and principles based on which we define “good” and “evil.”

In fact, throughout the years, morality has been influenced heavily by the same religious doctrines that have shaped our civilization. Although there is a considerable degree of congruence between most religions, we cannot help but notice subtle nuances that translate into moral and ethical differences.

In a world where people have begun replacing religious dogmas with scientific facts, the question we need to ask ourselves is — Will ethics and morality suffer changes as a result of this global shift of perspective?

Thatis where the difference between morality and ethics is most evident. In other words, while morality is a point of view shaped by religious dogmas and various social rules, ethics is a way of thinking that doesn’t require faith or belief. In ethics, there are no definitive laws and no higher order; only actions that are congruent or incongruent with a given ‘trend.’ In short, ethics teaches us how to think, not what to think.

Leaving aside the theoretical background,applied ethics is made up of several disciplines that aim to investigate philosophical problems, situations, and real-world dilemmas. Among these disciplinesare business ethics, environmental ethics, research ethics, ethics of media, ethics of international relations, and many more.

As you can see, ethics as much a philosophical discipline as it is a science of the real world. Every important decision we make and every opinion that we might have on a given topic has an ethical component.

What Do Ethics Have to Do with Psychology?

Over the years, the interaction between ethics and psychology has resulted in valuableinsights into human behavior and decision-making. As one review concludes, the blossoming research on (un)ethical behavior in organizations is welcome, andmuch needed given contemporary events. [1]

The reason why researchers have focused intensely on ethics in business, management, organizations, and other work-related fields is that ethical principles not only hold the key to understanding human behavior but can also improve human interactions.

And so, the field of behavioral ethics has emerged as a way to understand how people deal with ethical dilemmas and make decisions in morally challenging contexts. Furthermore, this emerging field of social scientific research has shed light on the countless benefits of ethical behaviours

“If you are not prepared to resign or be fired for what you believe in, then you are not a worker, let alone a professional. You are a slave.”

- Bronwyn Fryer

So it appears that ethics have more to do with psychology and human behaviour than we might think.

For example, a study published in Journal of Business Ethics revealed a link between ethical leadership, ethical climate, and ethical behavior. [2] To be more specific, ethical leadership creates a work climate where ethics matter. As a result, the group displays more ethical behaviors, because everybody follows the same moral code.

But what is it about ethical leadership that makes it so usefulin promoting ethical behaviors? More specifically, why do employees find it this leadership style so appealing?

A study published in Social Issues in Managementmight hold the answer to this question. It seems that ethical leaders treat work groups justly, thereby fostering justice climate (JC), and in doing so, further enhance peer justice (PJ). Ethical leaders also act as role models, demonstrating and rewarding just behavior for their direct reports facilitating PJ. [3] There you have it. By treating everyone fairly, ethical leaders build a work climate based on justice. Also, the entire team benefits from a role model that rewards fairness and ethical behaviors. This is preciselywhat ethics is all about.

But that’s not the only piece of scientific research that highlights the importance of an organisational climate based on justice. A recent study which targeted both ethical and unethical behaviors in the workplace concluded that ethical and unethicalaspects of employee behaviour share several of the same organisational antecedents, namely organisational justice perceptions. [4]

In organisational settings, the perception employees have on justice can influence their behavior in two ways. When there’s no justice within a workgroup, employees tend to engage in unethical behaviours more frequently merely because there are no negative consequences for breaking the rules. If an organisation’s activity is coordinated by ethical leaders who cultivate a climate based on justice, employees are less likely to engage in unethical behaviors.

It appears that ethical leadership could be the key to building harmonious work environments where people hold the same ethical standards and collaborate efficiently.

But if ethical behaviours have a positive impact on work environments, are there any variables that could somehow influence ethical behaviour? Something that could determine employees to hold high ethical standards?

Luckily, researchers might be on to something. According to a 2014 study, three variables that can have a positive impact on ethical behaviors areemotional intelligence, organizational commitment, and job satisfaction. [3]

Emotional intelligence allows employees to control their emotions and adjust their perspective. That way, they can put aside feelingsand evaluate each situation and decisionfrom an ethical standpoint. Also, being committed to the organization means that they are more likely to adopt the ethical‘vibe’ of their work environment. Finally, job satisfaction seems to play an essentialrole in ethical behaviours.

In a nutshell, ethics is a science of life; a mindset that brings people together in harmony.

Gardner’s Five Minds

As we mentioned before experts from various fields have studied ethics in hopes of gaining a better understanding why people behave the way they do. One expert who’ve studied ethics extensively is Howard Gardner, founder of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

In a recent interview published by Harvard Business Review, Howard Gardner offers some valuable insights on ethics, based on years of rigorous research on this topic. But before explaining the inner-workings of ethics, he presents a unique perspective of the human mind. More specifically, Gardner believes there are five minds we need to cultivate if we are to thrive as individuals, as a community, and as the human race. [6]

Here are Gardner’s five minds:

1. The disciplined mind

The disciplined mind begins to take shape during childhood when we are taught to apply ourselves is a disciplined way by parents, teachers, caregivers, and other authority figures. Through discipline, we sharpen our skills and become experts in our field.

2. The synthesizing mind

The synthesizing mind is responsible for how we process information. It allows us to separate ‘useful’ from ‘useless’ and coherently integrate information- like putting together a puzzle.

3. The creating mind

As the name suggests, the creative mind is responsible for every original idea we have. It innovates, discovers, makes changes, and generates novel ideas based on the information we have.

4. The respectful mind

This mind — which has a less cognitive “flavor” — is responsible for our open-mindedness and curiosity towards interpersonal relationships. The respectful mind prompts us to explore new social interactions and understand the intricacies and subtleties of personal and professional relationships.

5. The ethical mind

As Howard Gardner explains, the ethicalmind turns our respect for others and society in general into an abstract mental construct. It’s about understanding the reasons why we choose to treat people respectfully and adhere to a moral code.

Building the Ethical Mind

“It’s not enough to espouse high standards. To live up to them — and help others do the same — requires an ethical cast of mind that lets you practice your principles consistently.”

Howard Gardner

Aside from sharing his interesting perspective on the human mind, Howard Gardner also explained how people develop ethical attitudes towards themselves, others, and the world.

The ethical mind begins to take shape during childhood when we are exposedto various situations where adults face ethical dilemmas. Through observational learning, we slowly startto understand the basics of ethical behavior and, depending on the education we receive; weinternalize these patterns of thinking and behavior. Starting from kindergarten and all the way to college, each of us develops a set of ethical guidelines based on which we adapt our behavior. Every decision we make and every ethical dilemma we facewill invariably alter and shape our ethical mind.

Later on, after we finish our studies and begin to take the first steps in our professional career, our ethical mind suffers further changes under the influence of mentoring and organizational climate. As Howard Gardner says, true professionals, from doctors and lawyers to engineers and architects, undergo extensive training and earn a license. If they do not act according to recognized standards, they can be expelled from their professional guild. For example, an engineering intern will work side by side with seasoned engineers who can provide valuable ethical guidelines.

Aside from having leaders and mentors who inspire us to follow specificethical guidelines, another crucial element in developing our ethicalmind is feedback. Ideally, feedback should come from mentors, peers, and independent sources. Keep in mind that being an ethicalperson is all about behaving in a way that is congruent with the values and principles of your social group. At the same time, it’s incrediblybeneficial to interact with people who challenge your ethical standards because they broaden your perspective on “right” and “wrong.”

But what happens when, despite all the education, mentoring, and feedback we might have received, we find ourselves in an ethical dilemma where we feel tempted to “silence” the ethicalmind in return from other benefits?

That’s when self-honesty is most needed. This quality, trait, or whatever you choose to call it, is crucial inthose situations when the only one who can prevent an ethical ‘slip’ is you. Those are the moment when you need to look in the mirror and ask yourself “Am I a good person? And if not, what can I do to become one?”

In a nutshell, ethics is a science of life; a mindset that brings people together in harmony. At the same time, ethics is also something we need to practice — just like a skill — if we ever hope to live a truly ethical life.

Works Cited

L. K. Treviño, N. A. den Nieuwenboer and J. J. Kish-Gephart, “(Un)Ethical Behavior in Organizations,” Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 65, pp. 635–660, 2014.

C.-S. Lu and C.-C. Lin, “The Effects of Ethical Leadership and Ethical Climate on Employee Ethical Behavior in the International Port Context,” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 124, no. 2, p. 209–223, 2014.

F. O. Walumbwa, C. A. Hartnell and E. Misati, “Fostering Ethical and Learning Behavior: Ethical Leadership, Supervisor, and Group Members’ Fairness,” Academy of Management Proceedings, 2015.

G. Jacobs, F. D. Belschak and D. N. Den Hartog, “(Un)Ethical Behavior and Performance Appraisal: The Role of Affect, Support, and Organizational Justice,” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 121, no. 1, p. 63–76, 2014.

W. Fu, “The Impact of Emotional Intelligence, Organizational Commitment, and Job Satisfaction on Ethical Behavior of Chinese Employees,”Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 122, no. 1, p. 137–144, 2014.

B. Fryer, “The Ethical Mind,” Harvard Business Review, 2007.

Tyler Woollard is the founder of The Conduct Mind, a compliance consultancy firm. Online shop