Skip to content

What Makes Good People Do Bad Things?

What Makes Good People Do Bad Things

What Makes Good People Do Bad Things?

What makes good people do bad things?

I ask myself this often when investigating cases of fraud and corruption.

Recently, however, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review on the psychology behind unethical behaviour, highlighting that this isn’t the only question I should be asking.

Because obviously, good people are not the only ones who stray down unethical paths.

Warren Buffet believes that those who cross ethical lines are “neither saints nor criminals, but well-meaning leaders who sometimes fail to consult their moral compass while speeding ahead in a landscape full of tripwires and pitfalls.”

But what about those whose moral compass is already a little off? It doesn’t then take much to nudge them even further off the straight and narrow.

It is interesting to me that Buffet’s comment homes in on leaders. Because, whether inherently “good” or “bad,” people in leadership positions appear to most often be at the heart of any corruption scandal.

Perhaps British historian Lord Acton hit the proverbial nail on the head with his now widely famous quote, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

There have been numerous psychological studies that vividly illustrate this viewpoint. One of the most notable is surely the Stanford Prison Experiment, carried out in 1971. It had to be stopped when one of the groups of students who had been randomly assigned to serve as “prison guards” over another group began to abuse the students in that group.

And yet, there also are many examples of people in positions of power who have proved themselves to be excellent, compassionate, strong and, above all, highly ethical leaders. This then raises another possibility:

Perhaps power doesn’t corrupt. Perhaps it simply amplifies pre-existing ethical tendencies.

This reminds me of another well-known quote from arguably one of the world’s greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln, who said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

So, is it really possible to identify what goes on in someone’s head that causes them to abuse their position, behave unethically and, potentially, cause immense financial and reputational damage to the company they work for? Or, in the case of a government leader, to cause untold suffering and hardship for the citizens of the country or communities they were entrusted to lead?

I’m not naïve enough to presume that the answer is simply that moral leaders act in good faith and immoral ones don’t. I’ve been in business long enough to know that most of the time, it’s about how they navigate the vast space in between.

Because it’s often these unspoken psychological dynamics that push leaders – as well as employees – to cross ethical lines.

I appreciate it’s a monster of a question, and there may well never be a 100% conclusive answer, but there are several trains of thought that go a long way to shedding some light on the issue.

Organisational psychologist Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg believes there are essentially three psychological dynamics behind unethical behaviour: omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect.

Omnipotence, naturally, is a nod to the corruptive potential of power. When you feel powerful, it’s not much of a stretch to then start feeling untouchable. Rules are for other people, and your position gives you the right to do whatever you want without worrying about the consequences.

Cultural numbness tends to happen further down the chain of command. People watch their leaders bend or break the rules so regularly, and with such apparent impunity, that they start to accept unethical behaviour as normal. Psychologists caution that, over time, this can erode the moral standards of even the most principled people.

Running in a kind of parallel to this is what’s known as the trap of obedience – when a manager asks their subordinate to do something unethical, and the subordinate does so because they fear losing their job.

Joseph Badaracco, an ethics professor at Harvard Business School, interviewed recent MBA graduates who had faced these kinds of ethical dilemmas in the business world. Many had been caught in the trap of obedience – one was even told: “to make up data to support a new product introduction.” His boss cut him off when he objected and said, “Just do it.” The “or else…” clearly hung, unspoken, in the air.

Justified neglect is the last of the three dynamics, and it’s likely something we’ve all done to some degree in our personal lives at some point or other. The transgression is relatively minor, the risk of being caught is low, and the reward is tangible.

Perhaps you held a house party while your parents were away for the weekend. Or lied about being ill to get out of going to your in-laws for dinner.

In a corporate sense, justified neglect looks like breaking the rules to stay sweet with your boss – and rationalising your decision by saying it was “just once.”

The problem is, it’s rarely just once, and the more often you do it, the easier it gets. The easier it gets, the more often you’ll do it, and the bigger and more serious the transgressions become. Soon being unethical is a habit – completely justifiable and even acceptable – and you may not even realise you’re doing it anymore.

That’s really one of the biggest concerns – how quickly and easily it can happen.

Warren Buffet tells the story of how he and vice chairman Charlie Munger “…have seen all sorts of bad corporate behaviour, both accounting and operational, induced by the desire of management to meet Wall Street expectations.

“What starts as an ‘innocent’ fudge to not disappoint ‘the Street’ — say, trade-loading at quarter-end, turning a blind eye to rising insurance losses, or drawing down a ‘cookie-jar’ reserve — can become the first step toward full-fledged fraud.”

So, what can be done?

I’m pretty sure that for those people for whom behaving unethically is almost ingrained in their DNA, not a lot can be done to change the way they act.

But for those who are aware that they’re facing an ethical dilemma, it’s not too late to get off the speeding train before it derails completely.

I know that many leaders lack a clear path to follow. They’re pretty much shooting from the hip and making things up as they go along. This means ethical leadership relies a lot on their moral compass and conscience.

It helps to be aware of some of the psychological conditions that can push otherwise honest people into behaving dishonestly. This understanding acts as a kind of handbrake, slowing you down as you head down that slippery slope.

Like many things in life, forewarned is forearmed, and the more prepared you are, the more likely you’ll be to navigate situations with your integrity intact.