Recently I noted the phenomenon of MBA graduates signing pledges promising to behave ethically. This is an admirable sentiment, especially given the sheer number of MBA graduates (from ‘excellent’ business schools) who’ve been responsible for and/or complicit in our current Global Financial Crisis.
But it all has me wondering how such well-educated and smart people can end up doing such stupid, short-sighted and even illegal things?
We humans are social creatures, and what we do is largely dictated by our social connections (a.k.a our peer group). This is true even in the workplace. We easily accommodate to the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves. This is one of our human survival mechanisms, the ability to meld into groups or tribes.
Very rarely does any business executive actually set out from the beginning to act criminally. Does anyone imagine that Enron executives or Madoff and his compatriots originally set out to undertake fraud? I suspect that it was a seemingly innocent series of decisions and compromises over time that led to their unhappy end.
We know how strong the forces of conformance to authority can be – Milgram’s experiment and others bear that out. We also know how hard it can be to break a habit of behaviour or attitude:
The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. ~Samuel Johnson
The chances of young people who, even though smart and well-educated, are able to resist the implicit or explicit direction of authority towards unethical ends seems quite remote. How will young people:
- Identify inappropriate, but small, actions that indicate a potential problem?
- Be strong enough to resist the little daily actions that ultimately lead to evil?
- Understand the longer term implications of seemingly inconsequential daily actions?
Then, as those young people mature and obtain hostages to fortune, how will they resist the forces of conformity in the workplace? How will they resist those little daily compromises that can culminate in real evil?
I suspect that a grown-up with a family and a mortgage is much more resistant to the idea of rocking the boat by calling attention to irregularities in the workplace. Further, I suspect this is even more so during an economic downturn.
The real question for business schools is how to equip graduates with the ability to see and recognise the slippery slope as it so gradually appears before them. And also how we can better support whistleblowers, given that they often suffer worse fates than those upon whom they the blow the whistle.
As for the MBAs pledging ethical behaviour, I do hope that they fare better than those who’ve pledged to maintain their virginity.