This post is part of a series in honor of the School’s Leadership and Ethics Week.
There’s something almost irresistible about the story of bad apples — unscrupulous individuals whose lack of integrity can humiliate an unwitting organization or even bring it to its knees. Witness Société Générale’s recent rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel or knife-and-mallet wielding Lisa Nowak, the love-triangle astronaut at NASA.
Hand-in-hand with the notion that bad apples are at the root of much trouble is the idea that we can — and should — spot them in advance. According to the popular story, the fix for ethical problems is to identify and weed out the troublemakers before they make trouble. The problem with this bad-apple story is that it’s almost entirely wrong — if not in theory then at least in practice.
Let’s start with the first part of the story: bad apples are at the root of most trouble. A century of social science highlights how behavior is a joint function of people (their character, their vulnerabilities and so forth) and the situations in which they act (incentives, pressures, temptations, role models, etc.). To be sure, some characters need only a weak situation to evoke their unethical behavior, and indeed some characters simply create those situations for themselves.
On the other hand, some situations are powerful enough to get almost anyone to go along, even though most people outside the situation would see it as unacceptable or unwanted behavior. Psychologist Phil Zimbardo argues that the terrifying, sleep-deprived, pressure-cooker, no-rules environment at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003 was sufficiently intense and relentless to evoke sadistic behavior from otherwise normal, well-adjusted soldiers.
Management scholars Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick suggest that much unethical behavior in organizations stems from people being in situations where they can readily deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing. Thanks to an organization’s habitual language or labels for describing things — the ways in which decisions are framed, for instance — decent people can do awful things while seeing themselves as just and reasonable.
None of this is to dismiss the idea of personal responsibility for one’s own behavior. But if our goal is to predict untoward behavior, grading the badness of apples may not be sufficient to forecast who will do what.
Do bad apples exist? Yes. Is bad-appleness the best explanation for bad behavior? Sometimes it is; but in many cases the story is considerably more complicated.
Now, the second part of the story: can bad apples be spotted? Let’s consider one approach that seems tempting: catch bad apples on their way in the door by gauging their integrity during a job application or interview. Pose an ethical dilemma to a candidate, the idea might go, and use their response to predict whether their morals pass muster.
I sympathize that this method would appear to be utterly rational, but my reluctant conclusion is that it’s likely to be almost meaningless, or worse. Recent work on ethical thinking suggests there are multiple mental systems in play. For instance, research by neuroscientists such as Joshua Greene suggests that moral choices and behavior often flow from intuitive, unconscious, sometimes emotional processes that are distinct from rational or conscious processes. Asking someone to respond to a hypothetical ethical situation could tap into this later system of conscious thought, extemporaneous account-giving, and verbal proficiency. When put on the spot, a charming sociopath could confabulate an enchanting account about impeccably ethical behavior, even though their actual behavior in a real situation might be something quite different. A tongue-tied do-gooder might botch his or her answer but do the right thing if the situation actually happened.
In a way, doing something like posing ethical challenges to screen applicants could be worse than useless if an organization believed that such screening meant they were bad-apple free. Misplaced confidence in gatekeeping could lead an organization to ease up elsewhere in reinforcing the importance of integrity.
Does this mean scrapping ethics and integrity from interviews or hiring conversations? Not at all. I think discussing integrity during an interview can provide an important signaling function, saying, in effect: “We care about integrity here.” The focus would not be so much on whether someone passes an ethics test, but on showing candidates from day one that the organization takes integrity seriously.
Bad apples exist and can cause dramatic harm to an organization. But this isn’t the only, or perhaps even dominant, explanation for bad behavior. And while it may be tempting to try to catch these characters on their way in the door, practical and reliable methods for doing so are not readily at hand. It may be better to start sending a message from those early moments that integrity is taken seriously inside the organization.
And beyond this, organizations can work to build what Tenbrunsel calls an “ethical infrastructure” — formal and informal systems of communication, sanctioning, decision framing, and so forth — that creates situations pulling for everyone to do the right thing.