The Illusion of Being Ethical

March 12, 2021

It is always interesting to have a conversation with someone and hear them talk about how ethical their organization is despite news to the contrary.  The person will often describe how they have a detailed code of ethics and have mandatory ethics training.  Statistics are then shared as to how the organization has not violated any laws or been found guilty of any wrong-doings.  Usually, charitable giving inevitably comes into the conversation.

For example, I remember talking with someone a couple of years ago about an organization that seemed to be constantly in the news for various environmental concerns and fines and out of court settlements.  As I pointed out these various issues, the other person replied, “okay, but look at all the good the company does such as all the great paying jobs they provide for the community.” It as if a few good deeds expunge the culpability of the organization.  I had a friend comment recently, “Even Hitler build the Autobahn.”  A drastic example and not a moral equivalent.  However, it does make the point.  In fact, our current reality is filled with individuals and groups making false equivalencies.  A false equivalence is a type of logical fallacy.  Someone tries to make a comparison based upon false or flawed reasoning.  We have often heard this “comparing apples and oranges.”  When this occurs intentionally, reason and logic can be used to correct the fallacy.  However, when it is done intentionally or irrationally, reason and logic will make no difference.

Confusing Ethical with Legal

Organizational members are often challenged to reconcile what they know to be ethical concerns even though the letter of the law is being followed.  We must not confuse ethical behavior with legal behavior.  History is full of examples of unethical actions that at one time were perfectly legal.

Perhaps this challenge arises from the occurrence of cognitive dissonance.  It can be difficult to come to terms with being a part of an organization that you know is not ethical and yet you go to work for them and accept compensation and a nice benefits package.  We begin to rationalize that the organization must be good because no laws are being broken.  We discount the evidence to the contrary of our behavior.  Our beliefs begin to match our behavior to resolve this cognitive dissonance.  Falling prey to the effects of cognitive dissonance is dangerous.

Are you Isolated from Reality?

Given the current challenges surrounding the global pandemic, the impact of being isolated has never been greater.  This, combined with the endless availability of any information we choose to seek out from the internet, can further contribute to reinforcing our selective beliefs and contribute to the isolation from reality.

Consequently, it is easy to become insulated inside an organization and begin to see the world through a different lens.  This is a lens that can truly believe the organization is not what the external evidence indicates.  Instead, they see themselves and the organization as victims of overzealous detractors and jealous competitors.  We must guard against falling into the trap of believing “alternative facts”.

Because of this possibility, it is necessary to take the time to step back and question our assumptions; to doubt our certainty.  We must re-examine our mental models and have honest conversations, no matter how uncomfortable.  Our personal values should be indelible and not able to be swayed by a paycheck or a convincing marketing campaign.  The psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance is real.  As HRD professionals, we have the potential to play an instrumental role in helping our organizations to create an organizational culture that allows and encourages open and honest dialogue and healthy debate.  Training and development can be powerful tools to help shatter illusions grounded in faulty mental models.

What Illusions Do You Need to Shatter?

What illusions do you need to shatter?  Have you taken the time to question your assumptions around your organization’s and your own behavior?  What difficult conversations do you need to be engaging in?  Perhaps during these times of Zoom meetings, Google hangouts, and the plethora of online tools for interacting virtually, we can use this as an opportunity to raise some of these difficult topics and use this time of upheaval and uncertainty to question our assumptions and long-held beliefs.  It is often during the most difficult times that the most growth occurs if we are open to the uncomfortableness of change.

Have a safe weekend and take time to pause and reflect.

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