Category Archives: Ethics

Are You Suffering from Moral Superiority?

Are you really as good a person as you think you are? Don’t get me wrong; I think you’re great, really, I do. What I’m asking is whether you are morally superior to the general population. Are your decisions more principled? Is you behavior more virtuous?

According to research in Social Psychological and Personality Science, we tend to see ourselves as better than other people. In the study, participants rated themselves and the average person on traits reflecting the core dimensions of social perception: morality (e.g., sincerity, honesty), sociability (e.g., warmth, likeability), and agency (e.g., competence, creativity). Virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities. For instance, they rated traits like trustworthiness as 6.1 for themselves, but only 4.3 for others. The other domains of positive self-evaluation also received higher scores, but the participants didn’t inflate their scores as much as they did for the morality-based characteristics.

In another study from Motivation and Emotion, participants estimated the percentage of times they exhibited positive traits. Six weeks later, these same participants evaluated the average person’s positive traits based on estimates that supposedly represented the populace. In reality, the traits being measured were their own scores. Results found that people consistently gauge themselves more favorably than others, even when the estimates on which they base their ratings are identical to their own.

If you’re familiar with the theory of social projection, it states the belief that if you do something, others are likely to do the same. But if this were true, in the two studies above and numerous others, participants would either drop their own self-rating or rate everyone else higher. No, social projection may be true for aspects of our life, but there remains an assumption that one’s morality is significantly greater than everyone else.

As a leader, moral superiority can have dangerous repercussions. This “positive illusion” leads to self-justified corruption, a reduced willingness to compromise, and intolerance. In addition, people displaying this arrogance feel less obligated to follow a strict ethical code because they believe themselves to already be so much more progressive. Thus, by believing we are above the moral average, it could ironically makes us less so.

Don’t fall for the trappings of moral conceit. I’m sure you are extremely morality-bound, but so are most of the people around you. You may not always understand why they behave the ways they do, but that’s an opportunity to converse, not pronounce them as malefactors and yourself a saint. Sustain a more grounded outlook and keep your “ethical ego” in check.

Are You a Victim of Gaslighting? How to Avoid Being Manipulated by an Unethical Leader

Let’s say, just for the sake of discussion, that the leader of a country stated his predecessor had committed a federal crime. Then, when asked to provide proof, he pivoted, declaring we misunderstood his blatant accusation. What about that same leader denying making statements when he’s been recorded making those very statements? Unlikely, right? What’s even more unlikely is that this guy has a loyal following who believes him. How does this happen? It may be a little psychological trick called gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a tactic in which the victim is manipulated into questioning their reality. Through methodical mental exploitation, the perpetrator is able to control the victim’s perceptions of themself and their environment, thereby providing control over the victim’s behaviors.

The term “gaslighting” originated with the play Angel Street and its subsequent 1944 film Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she is crazy by manipulating small elements of her environment. For instance, per the movie title, he dims the gaslights and then pretends that she’s the only one who thinks the room is getting darker. Slowly and steadily, the wife begins to succumb to the self-doubt created by the subtle changes.

In the beginning of the article, I loosely described a leader who refutes the reality we all see. You probably thought I was discussing President Trump and his endless supply of falsehoods (his ‘landslide’ election, Russian hacking, history of sexual harassment, border wall, ability to save jobs/healthcare/economy, etc and etc and etc). I was, but I also described the actions of many other ethically-dubious leaders.

Leaders (the ethically-dubious ones, not you) utilize gaslighting to gain a loyal following… and by “loyal” I’m referring to a cult-like culture where no one disagrees with, questions, or even considers doubting the direction of the leader. People adhere because they’ve undergone a form of mental abuse where their perception has been morphed into viewing the world through the leader’s reality. It is then reinforced when they witness the belittlement and banishment of those who dare to deviate from the party line.

Before you pass judgment on these supposed weak-minded followers, its important to note that we are all susceptive to gaslighting. It takes place so slowly that we are often unaware we’ve been brainwashed. It can involve such truth-blurring techniques as:

Denying they said something even though you have proof. You heard them say they would do something, but now they deny it. It makes you start questioning your intellectual or moral validity. Maybe they never said it or you misunderstood. Either way, the more it happens, the more you blame yourself for being wrong and begin accepting their reality.

Telling you or others that you’re crazy or a liar. Not only is this dismissive and aimed to make you question yourself, it also creates a fear that others will side with the gaslighter to question your sanity and honesty.

Exploiting what is important to you. Gaslighters know what you care about and use it to make you doubt yourself. They then invoke your worst insecurities, intimidate you, and mock you under the guise of humor.

Wearing you down over time. Gaslighting typically starts small and gradually ramps up. It’s like the way you cook a crab; the heat is turned up so slowly that the crab never realizes the water is boiling.

Aligning people against you. Gaslighters know who will stand by them and they pit these people against you. As an FYI, they are pitting you against them, as well. Side comments like, “XXX doesn’t think you know what you’re talking about” are an effective way to isolate employees and create distrust amongst the ranks. It also forces people to rely on the gaslighter as the single source of “accurate” information.

Using occasional positive reinforcement. After a stream of criticism, slights, and insults, they throw in some praise. This can be confusing, but it can also make you feel just good enough to undergo more of their abuse and create an emotional opening for further manipulation.

I don’t list these techniques as a “how to.” With awareness, you can identify the signs and avoid the gaslighter’s trap. I stress avoidance because, according to the book The Gaslight Effect, this is the single most effective way to not be gaslit. Any attempt to prove the gaslighter wrong will most likely lead to you trying to prove the gaslighter right. That’s why they’re an effective gaslighter; they can turn your defense against you

No attempt to stop gaslighting will be effective unless the person being gaslighted is willing to walk away from the relationship. In other words, one must be willing to end the gaslighting relationship. In the arena that we are discussing; that means walking away from the wider culture at large.—Dr. Robin Stern, The Gaslight Effect

Whether it’s your supervisor or the President of the United States, we must remain vigilant against manipulation. Seek leaders whose actions match their words. People who do not feel the need to re-explain or re-clarify every statement. People who are more concerned with doing the right thing than with being right. People who can (and willingly) support their arguments with facts. People who exert more effort building you up versus pressuring you to follow them. This should be obvious, but gaslighting sneaks up on you; once you’re in, it is difficult to unwind.

Three Ways to Assess Someone’s Ethics

What if unethical behaviors emitted a visible indicator? That’s the premise of a great book I just finished, Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Set in Victorian-era England, people produce a trail of smoke every time they sin. As a result, they are not able to hide their worst thoughts or impulses.

As leaders, there are certainly benefits to a smoking-inducing culture. We’d always know who to trust, intentions would be crystal clear, and we could take immediate action when faced with ethical hiccups. Of course, with our morals on display we’d also have to remain on the virtuous path, but that wouldn’t an issue, right?

If you want to avoid the smokey discharge of corruption, the following are three ways you can assess your team’s ethics.

Establish a Baseline

When identifying an ethical quandary, many rely on perception. Sure, some situations are black and white, but these are the obvious examples. For those predicaments in the grey-ish area, perception is dependent upon circumstances and the individual trying to recognize the breach. Therefore, if you are going to be on the lookout, you need to ensure that everyone on the leadership team shares the same expectations.

Creating a foundation begins with assessing your current organizational culture. According to Kenneth W. Johnson, Director of the Ethics & Policy Integration Centre, there a number of measurable factors that can serve to align a company, including how employees:

  • perceive that leadership prioritizes ethics and the core values over the bottom line,
  • speak openly about ethics and the company’s core values,
  • consider the core values in decision making,
  • feel that they and their co-workers are treated fairly,
  • pressure felt to compromise values,
  • distinguish that ethical behavior is rewarded and unethical behavior is punished,
  • identify that “good faith” mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth and development, and
  • hold themselves and others accountable to the standards.

These factors provide a profile of the organization so as to help leadership design and implement an effective ethics program. Then, after the program has launched, this list is valuable in evaluating program success.

Ask the Right Questions

When you know what to ask and what to listen for, a behavioral approach to conversations can uncover a person’s ethical leanings.

If you ask people if they’re ethical, they’re going to say, ‘Yes.’ Behavioral questions tell you that the person was in a situation that they saw as ethics-related and tell you how they thought through the problem and what they did.—Patricia Harned, President of the Ethics Resource Center

When trying to gauge someone’s ethics, consider a few of these questions:

  • What makes up an ethical workplace?
  • At Acme Corp, we are accountable, dependable and transparent. How do you define accountable, dependable and transparent?
  • Did you see the section of our website where we described the company’s stance on ethics? Which of our core values made an impression?
  • When you’ve had ethical issues arise at work, whom did you consult?
  • Can you describe an instance when you witnessed or learned of someone engaging in unethical behavior? What was that behavior and how did you address it?
  • Tell me about a time when you felt it was necessary to cut corners on the quality of a job. What was the situation and how did you resolve it?
  • Describe a time where you were pressured to cheat on a [test / expense report / project. What were the circumstances and how did you handle it?

Clandestine Observations

Famed basketball player and coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” To really assess someone’s ethics, you need to observe them in situations where they aren’t aware of being observed. Consider:

  1. Creating a list of ethical criteria in which you are interested. This will provide a starting point in the behaviors of which you need to be mindful. They may involve honesty, value driven decision-making, modeling, humaneness, trustworthiness, and fairness.
  2. Getting a full picture. Use 360 practices to gather the team’s experiences with the individual. For instance, with interview candidates, I like to utilize the receptionist. How do they treat him/her when a manager is not present? Are they courteous and respectful or dismissive?
  3. Observing firsthand. You can’t rely solely on other’s perceptions. Watch the individuals’ actions and reactions in a manner where they do not realize you are monitoring their behavior. Take note of the criteria you outlined and anything else you find pertinent.

In the absence of smoke, a growing Pinocchio nose, or a flashing red “LIAR” sign, leaders must be able to detect falsehoods. Start with establishing your code of conduct. Then engage in intelligent conversations and observe people’s behaviors. It’s not as easy as watching someone emit smoke, but it’ll sure cut down on the cleaning bill.

How ‘Fake News’ Damages Your Company and What You Can Do About It

Since the election, the idea of “fake news” has been prominently debated. Whether from willful blindness or a general sense of gullibility, stories that appear real have spread throughout social media…but this is not a new phenomenon.

200 years ago it was reported that after cutting down a cherry tree, a six year old George Washington guiltily told his father, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Similarly, Paul Revere didn’t ride through the streets of Concord, Massachusetts yelling, “The British are coming” and Isaac Newton did not discover gravity when an apple fell on his head.

While these stories are technically fake news, they are distinguished from today’s fake news in their intent. When Mason Locke Weems penned the cherry tree tale in 1806, he was trying to illustrate Washington’s virtue so as to inspire young Americans to emulate him. Elias Phinney relayed Revere’s ride as an act of patriotism. And John Conduitt used Newton’s apple story as a metaphor so the less educated could understand the concept of gravity.

The fake news in our current political climate is more in the vein of Marie Antoinette’s, “Let them eat cake.” This quote was inaccurately attributed to Antoinette when a French Revolutionary anti-establishment pamphlet distributed it as a cartoon. In publishing such an untruth, the author was not trying to generate a metaphorical narrative; rather he was seeking to fuel the insurrection and overthrow of the French government.

As Antoinette can attest, fake news is inherently destructive in nature. Whether it’s from protesters or government leaders, these stories have no purpose but to disparage those with opposing views, stoke irrational fears, and spread falsehoods. There is no way to rationalize it; if an argument is well-intentioned, the truth should be sufficient to convince the masses. If it’s not, you need a better argument.

Consider how your company reacts when a malicious rumor is started. These localized fake news stories have long lasting negative ramifications on your team. Not only are they distracting, but the fabrications harm reputations, working relationships, and the overall culture. This then affects performance, productivity, and the bottom line.

There are two action items we can learn here. One, we need to do a better job identifying and quashing fake news. If you think this sounds easy, think again. A recent Stanford study found that students cannot determine fake news from real news. This lack of critical thinking is particularly alarming considering their nonstop media consumption. Participants had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles and were unable to identify where information came from. In addition, more than 80% believed a native ad identified with the words “sponsored content” was a real news story AND only 25% recognized and were able to explain the differences between a verified Twitter account and one that simply looked legitimate.

This finding indicates that students may focus more on the content of social media posts than on their sources. Despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information.—Sam Wineburg & Sarah McGrew

The second action item is that as leaders we must take responsibility for this fakery within our organizations. This begins with educating those on our team to be discernable absorbers of information. When new information is presented, teach them to evaluate it based on the following questions:

  1. Do you know the source? Is he/she reliable and trustworthy?
  2. Can you verify the information?
  3. How does it measure up to what you already know?
  4. Does it make (common) sense?
  5. Do you understand the complexity of the information?
  6. Do you understand the context of the information?
  7. What biases do you have that could affect how you interpret the information?
  8. Have subject matter experts corroborated the information? What about the company’s executive team?
  9. How current is the information?
  10. What is the intent of the person disseminating the information?

Fake news is an epidemic. Thankfully, you are in a position to be the Senior Editor of your organization’s “news” outlet. When fake news stories arise, no matter how trivial, report the truth. Don’t allow even one minor fib to become part of the dialogue. The more you practice this, the more fact-checking will become engrained in your culture.

Weekender: Ron Swanson’s Three Workplace Rules

Ron SwansonWelcome to another addition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a stash of thought to start your weekend off on the right track. Why just a stash? Because it’s the weekend!

I was recently re-watching the series finale of Parks and Recreation and noticed two bits of advices that can benefit any leader. The first is that this show (particularly this episode) is a great pick-me-up when you’re having a rough day. Second, and more fitting for leaders, is Ron Swanson’s sage wisdom.

Over the course of the Parks & Rec finale, we learn the fate of each character. Ron Swanson is bequeathed his dream job, Superintendent of Pawnee National Park. When being introduced to his new staff, he tells them his three rules for the workplace:

If you show up on time, speak honestly and treat everyone with fairness we will get along just fine.

If this sounds overly complex, Swanson is emphasizing 1) punctuality, 2) honesty, and 3) fairness. There’s a beauty in the simplicity of these ideals. No unnecessarily flowery language or high-flatulency to make it sound bigger than it needs to be. Just three core values that we are all capable of abiding by.

Ron Swanson is a man of few words, and those words are typically purposeful. He lives by them and has no patience for anyone who behaves otherwise. Make punctuality, honesty, and fairness a key focus of your culture and see how simple goodness can enhance your work environment.