Can you anticipate unethical behaviour?

13 Feb 20

By understanding the key factors that lead to unethical behaviour, we can all be prepared and take action to prevent it. This is part one of our two-part series on ethics.

Part two will focus on professional guidance.

Key takeaways
  • Learn the warning signs of moral disengagement – a key predictor of unethical behaviour
  • Analyse your situational strength
  • Focus on authenticity
  • Be a role model for ethical conduct

What is moral disengagement?

‘Moral disengagement’ is an internal state that has been identified as significantly increasing the potential for an individual to behave unethically. It is defined as a disconnection between the person and their own moral standards or those of society around them. Warning signs of increased moral disengagement include:

  • a lack of self-awareness or self-reflection
  • inconsistencies between values and behaviour
  • inability to regulate emotions or actions.

There are many factors that may contribute to moral disengagement, and it provides fertile ground for unethical actions to spring up, as the individual is less conscious of the consequences of their behaviour. This can happen as a four-step process:

  1. convincing yourself that the action is not actually unethical (“everyone does it”)
  2. reinforcement that reduces personal accountability (“I don’t have a choice”)
  3. denial of any personal consequences or blame (“it’s not my fault”)
  4. diminishing the status of the victim (“what does it matter to them anyway?”)

This accumulation of defensive layers acts as insulation between the individual and their professed values – or even reality. As a result they can become less self-critical and more task-oriented as a means of self-protection. Unethical actions have the potential to spiral, as the individual seeks to hide what they’ve done or escalates it when they do not perceive any consequences.

How does situational strength contribute to unethical behaviour?

Our behaviour is regulated both by our internal moral codes, ethics and values, and by the situation we inhabit – the prompts that we get from our environment relating to the actions we are taking. If the environment sends signals that are conducive to fostering unethical behaviour – an observed lack of serious consequences for breaches of ethical codes, infractions being overlooked or left unpunished, or a general laissez-faire atmosphere – then there is little external pressure on individuals to behave ethically. A constraint on moral disengagement is therefore lost.

Culture is created through such subliminal signals, by behaviours and norms that go unspoken, and so managers must be careful not to encourage an environment where there is a sense of being able to ‘get away with’ unethical actions.

Why is authenticity important?

Authenticity is an important quality that will reduce the possibility of moral disengagement occurring. As individuals we can all take steps to be more authentic, by having a clear internal and external alignment of values, behaviours and attitudes. Those who are authentic are less defensive, more open to listening to and learning from others, and more aware of their impact on people around them – therefore less likely to even consider unethical behaviour in the first place. Authenticity can be achieved through reflective practices:

  • think about yourself and critically evaluate your thoughts, feelings and related actions
  • listen to those nagging doubts, inner voices, or any general sense of unease
  • consider your motivations, and your underlying emotional state
  • be honest with yourself – looking beyond excuses and justifications.

How can I be a role model?

Managers and future public sector leaders have a duty to be role models for their staff in terms of ethics, and think carefully about how their actions are influencing the culture of their organisation. Things to avoid include focusing on achieving targets at all costs, thereby encouraging staff to cut corners to meet them. It is also best not to adopt a laidback attitude, tolerating infractions of ethical codes for fear of ‘rocking the boat’.

Instead, managers can demonstrate authenticity by being open to feedback and allowing their staff to ask questions, and by receiving new ideas well. By being aware of the impact of your actions on others, you can model good self-awareness and lead by example.

Questions for you
  • Are you satisfied that you are behaving authentically?
  • Would your colleagues say that about you, if asked?
  • How can you clearly model ethical behaviour in your context?

Further information

CIPFA members – conduct and ethics
CIPFA Standard of Professional Practice on Ethics
CIPFA Leadership Development Programme

  • Gordon Ferrier

    Director of Collective Cognition, a consultancy specialising in strengthening capacity in public sector organisations, and a former assistant director of CIPFA

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