“To know what is right and not do it is the worst cowardice.” – Confucius
After graduating from business school in 2008, I traveled by land from Istanbul, Turkey to Paris, France, loosely following the route of the famous Orient Express. One of the stops on my journey that will forever be etched in my memory is the House of Terror in Budapest, Hungary. The building is a museum housed in the former headquarters of the secret police under the Nazi and Communist regimes.
After entering the grey building with the word “Terror” cut out of the awning, I was shocked to find a soviet-era tank in the middle of the atrium. The smell of metal and grease immediately hit my nose. The museum walks the visitor through the infamous past of the building using high tech exhibits, but what touched me the most was decidedly non-tech – a wall of framed photographs. At first glance, the men and women pictured seemed like normal people. They could have been your or my neighbors. They could have been people we pass on the street every day. Yet, these people were members of the secret police and responsible for some unimaginable atrocities including kidnapping, torture and murder. I began to wonder why these seemingly normal human beings had committed such extraordinary evil.
For a clue, we turn to some experiments conducted at my alma mater, Yale University. If you have ever taken an introductory Psychology course, you have probably studied the famous Milgram experiments of the 1960s. Essentially, experiment participants were told they were to help another participant (an actor) to learn a list of word pairs. The participant was to administer a shock to the actor if he or she gave the wrong answer. Each wrong answer caused the shock to increase 15 volts up to a maximum of 450 volts. While the actor was located in an adjacent room, the participant could hear his or her reactions to the shocks. Surprisingly 61-66% of participants continued to shock the actor even after they heard screams, banging on the wall and ultimately silence. When participants expressed any questions or remorse, a researcher would urge them to continue and in most cases the participant would. Stanley Milgram, the Psychologist who designed the experiments had this to say:
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
How do you stand up for what’s right when there is tremendous pressure around you to conform? Interestingly, it may not be totally up to you. David Mayer, a researcher at the University of Michigan, found in a survey of 30,000 Americans that about 20% of survey participants reported seeing violations of their company’s code of conduct. Only half of those who viewed violations actually spoke up about the violations. Upon further investigation, Mayer and his colleagues found that our peers have a big influence on our willingness to come forward. In another experiment, Mayer found that two-thirds of volunteers reported a violation if they were surrounded by ethical peers whereas, only one-third spoke up if they were surrounded by unethical peers. Mayer remarked,
“About 20 to 25 percent of people just tend to do the right thing, regardless of the environment. And then I think maybe we get 10 to 20 percent who might just be a little bit more likely to do that self-interested thing. And then the majority of us follow in this area in the middle.”
How do you increase ethical behavior in your organization? Of course it starts at the top, but the culture and values that guide team members play a tremendous role in encouraging them to pursue ethical behavior.
Photo Credit: Nigel Swales