Values & Ethics in Our Behavioural Age

Jeffrey Kaplan

by Jeff Kaplan

A core value for our behavioral age

Groucho Marx famously said: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” When it comes to companies committing to follow key principles to guide their behavior – what are often called “core values” – there is clearly no shortage of options. Indeed, this posting on the Threads web site offers 500 ideas for those in the market for values.

One value that I see occasionally (but not frequently) selected for “core” status is humility. Kellogg, for instance, includes humility among several other core values.  Humility is not principally about ethics – Kellogg embraces an integrity value too (as is the case with a large number of companies). But I do see humility as having an important role to play in promoting compliance and ethics in business organizations, in several ways.

First, humility is a logical and arguably inevitable response to the vast body of behavioral ethics research showing “we are not as ethical as we think.”  Thinking and acting with humility is indeed a way of operationalizing behavioral ethics. (For a list of behavioral ethics and compliance posts click here. Also, please see this recent article in the NY Times on behavioral ethics and the notion of “servant leadership.”)

Second, humility is well suited for addressing ethical challenges that are based not on the purposeful failure to be honest but on the less well-appreciated dangers of being careless. (For a post on that click here.) Recognizing the limits of one’s abilities – which is part of being humble –  should help underscore the need for carefulness.

Finally, humility has the potential to resonate deeply in our political, as well as business, culture. By this I mean humility can help form part of a broader mutually supporting relationship between business ethics and what might be called societal ethics of the sort described in other posts.

From a professional viewpoint the benefits to the business side are of most immediate interest to me, but as a citizen (hopefully in the broad sense) I know that the societal dimension is of greater importance. So, let me close by quoting what is one of the best (albeit largely forgotten) expressions of humility’s role in societal ethics, which  can be found in Learned Hand’s “Spirit of Liberty” speech: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right [and] which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women…”  Delivered in 1944 – when the US and other democracies were engaged in a truly existential battle for survival – these words have never been more compelling than they are today. 

Loyalty as an ethics risk

Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously said: “I’ll take fifty percent efficiency to get one hundred percent loyalty.”  But too much loyalty can be bad for reasons that go beyond inefficiency, as shown by ex-President Trump’s call for then FBI director Comey to be loyal to him personally. On the other hand, a world with too little loyalty could be highly dysfunctional and even hellish.

In a piece in Forbes several years ago Rob Asgar made the following important  points  (among others) about loyalty:

The “loyalty bind,” as some psychologists call it, keeps the members of an organization from being able to see tumors metastasizing in their midst. It’s what leads to scandals and cover-ups in churches, city halls, companies and ideological movements.

The challenge is to move organizations away from the notion of loyalty to persons and toward the notion of loyalty toward first principles. These principles include transparency, integrity, accountability and a constant readiness to reform in whatever way necessary—no matter whose personal interests may be affected. This isn’t easy, because humans are tribal—we evolved to be in the society of other humans and to instinctively sacrifice our own safety in order to defend them against outside threats. The notion of defending shared principles came later, and it still hasn’t taken root fully.

The point about humans being tribal is, of course, key.  When behavior is truly instinctive it is hard (and sometimes impossible) to prevent/modify.

C&E practitioners have, of course, long looked for ways to do just that.  Sometimes this involves appealing to shared values, as noted above.  But it can also entail  drawing on loyalty to other persons.

For instance, years ago I helped to develop a short C&E training video that sought to evoke feelings of a “larger loyalty” by showing the faces of colleagues laid off in the wake of an accounting scandal that could have been, but wasn’t, stopped in the early stages by a potential whistleblower.  Another video focused on the harm to the wrongdoer’s family members when he went to jail for his crime against the company.

In addition to training, other forms of communication should be used to address the downsides of misdirected loyalty. Among other things, senior officials at the company. (particularly the CEO) should speak to it in town halls and/or emails to all employees.

Risk assessment also has a role to play in addressing loyalty-related risks. In  Ethics for Adversaries,    Arthur Isak Applbaum describes how many of the adversary systems with which we live – law, politics, and others – seem to license wrongdoing that would not be countenanced if done in other settings.  As he notes, “[A]dversaries act for by acting against,” and this leads to a purported “division of moral labor” – with the expectation that some sort of equilibrium will arise therefrom.   But, he says, acts that ordinarily would be morally forbidden – such as deception – should not be considered permissible merely because they are performed in a political or professional role. 

Finally, audit has a role to play too. Among other things, it can focus audits on a company’s facility that has been managed for a long time by a particular executive.

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