Photo by NightRPStar
I have always been fascinated with small decisions and how one such decision can lead to a spiral that ends in enormous unwanted results in the future. Last semester, while still down at AGSM MBA, I took a business ethics class and noticed that in a lot of the cases we talked about, the current ethical dilemma was rooted in a small and sometimes insignificant decision in the past.
Then I read this post describing a very intriguing experiment:
…[The] psychologists Francesca Gino, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely asked two groups of young women to wear sunglasses taken from a box labeled either “authentic” or “counterfeit.” (In truth, all the eyewear was authentic, donated by a brand-name designer interested in curtailing counterfeiting.) Then the researchers put the participants in situations in which it was both easy and tempting to cheat. In one situation, which was ostensibly part of a product evaluation, the women wore the shades while answering a set of very simple math problems — under heavy time pressure. Afterward, given ample time to check their work, they reported how many problems they were able to answer correctly. They had been told they’d be paid for each answer they reported getting right, thus creating an incentive to inflate their scores. Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers knew each person’s actual score. Math performance was the same for the two groups — but whereas 30 percent of those in the “authentic” condition inflated their scores, a whopping 71 percent of the counterfeit-wearing participants did so. Why did this happen? As Gino puts it, “When one feels like a fake, he or she is likely to behave like a fake.” It was notable that the participants were oblivious to this and other similar effects the researchers discovered: the psychological costs of cheap knockoffs are hidden. The study is currently in press at the journal Psychological Science.
And that got me thinking. Here is the comment I made on that post:
It [the research described above] actually explains the downwards trends in ethics over time and the fact that a small unethical decisions might lead to a major issues in the long run. It also reminds of the broken windows theory. As soon as we are already faced with something broken, it is easier for us to act “broken” ourselves. The importance of small choices is so significant it is almost too hard to understand it.
As always I try to translate such thoughts to the world of management and to the way managers connect with their employees. I think there are a number of implications:
1. There is no such thing as a small decision. Our every act matters. And in the things that are important, like praise and recognition and helping people excel, we are tested every day. We don’t know what deciding not to engage in such activities today means for the future.
2.While thinking about the possible outcomes of the every possible decision is impossible and paralyzing, it is important to realize that the biggest issues started small. If you decide to go down a certain path, you create momentum which is hard to recognize and hard to stop. Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo says in interview for the book Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition by Guy Kawasaki (You don’t have to read the whole book but read this chapter and page 365):
Good people don’t rush in to do evil where angels fear to tread; instead they start by straying only a small way away from their moral center and each successive step down is hardly different, barely noticeable, until it is too late and their behavior is shocking and may even be awesome or awful.
3. Finally, I write here in this blog that managers should stop with trying to create rules. I believe in employee autonomy and in practical wisdom. At the same time, I wrote this in my e-book:
I believe in doing things right because they are right. In obeying the rules because they are rules. I believe that there are certain things that are just not done. We have so many rules around us. Some are better, some are worse. But the sad thing is, that we are used to breaking them every day. Just think about jaywalking or avoiding certain tax payments or taking something from your office when you are not supposed to. I believe rules are there for a reason and we should follow them because they are there. Because it is right. If the rules are wrong, it is all right to try to change them. In fact, we must try and change wrong rules. But there is a legitimate way to do that. And as long as they are valid rules, we should obey them.
This might seem contradictory. It might be. I have also grown and changed in the year and a half that passed since I wrote those words. At the same time part of my philosophy is that we should celebrate contradictions – F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time”.