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The Water Cooler

A blog of fresh ideas and findings from organizational leaders and researchers on how they’re making work better, shared regularly.

Are we as ethical as we think we are? Probably not, but we should embrace that.

Are we as ethical as we think we are? Probably not, but we should embrace that.
We all like to think that we’re ethical people most of the time. But the reality is our behavior is changeable and cyclical. Research suggests that by giving up on the idea of perfect ethicality, we can learn from our mistakes and improve our behavior.

Dr. Dolly Chugh, Associate Professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, spoke about her research at the re:Work 2016 event. Chugh’s work focuses on “bounded ethicality.” The idea of “bounded ethicality” comes from “bounded rationality” - the concept that the human mind is constrained by systematic processes that limit how much information it can process. “Bounded ethicality is a similar concept,” Chugh explained. “Systematic processes of an ordinary healthy mind mean that we sometimes depart from perfect ethicality, that sometimes how your brain works and how my brain works is different than how we imagine it to be.”

But it’s hard for us to let go of the ideal that we are perfectly ethical. It’s only when we’re reminded of the ethical limits of our own behavior, perhaps in the form of a critique from a peer or a reminder of what we claim to be (e.g., signing our name on a contract or seeing the company code of conduct), that we question who type of person we really are.

So Chugh’s theory is that our minds are actually constantly, unconsciously searching our environments for things that might challenge our self-image of perfect ethicality. When no threats are detected, our minds congratulate themselves on their perceived ethically, a process Chugh calls “self-enhancement.” And this is where we run into trouble. Once our brains have affirmed that we are indeed ethical, we in turn become less aware of our own ethical transgressions.

We slip until we finally perceive a threat that highlights how we may be acting unethically. Then our brains recalibrate, we slow down, and we restart looking at the ethical implications of our decisions and actions. Chugh calls this “self-protection.” “So on one given day, we may be in a self-enhancement mode. And in a different given day, we may be in a self-protection mode,” Chugh said. “Self-enhancement is trending towards unethical. Self-protection is trending towards ethical. These processes are cyclical, and automatic, and dynamic hinging on what happened in the recent past.”

Given the theoretical limits of our mental ethical capacity, what can we do to try to be more ethical more of the time? Let’s start by dispelling the myth that we can be totally ethical all of the time. “If we could challenge this belief in the unicorn, this belief in our perfect ethicality all the time, we might in fact be able to become ethical learners,” Chugh urged. “That with those conditions in place, we could actually view ourselves as people who are continually striving for perfect ethicality but sometimes slipping and willing to learn from it.”