Tag 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.

The Problems with Emotional Intelligence: It’s a Jungle [Book] Out There

Jungle-Book-by-Rudyard-Kipling-2Since the mid-1990s, the idea of emotional intelligence has been forced upon us as the quintessential trait for more effective leadership, enriched relationships, and generally happier lives. I don’t disagree with any of these findings and I remain a staunch supporter of growing your emotional intelligence. However, like anything, there are those who can take a positive feature and warp it to satisfy their own selfish agenda.

In 1894, English author Rudyard Kipling wrote about the perils of emotional intelligence in his classic, The Jungle Book, which you probably know it better as the 1967 Walt Disney Productions’ animated movie and (as of this weekend) the live action movie. The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli, an abandoned “man cub” who is raised by wolves with the help of Baloo the jovial bear and Bagheera the protective black panther.

jungle book shere khanUnlike the movies, Kipling’s book provides additional details on Shere Khan, the villainous Bengal tiger fixated on killing Mowgli. He makes many attempts on Mowgli’s life beginning with the man cub’s early upbringing. In a maneuver that involves a high degree of emotional intelligence, Khan infiltrates Mowgli’s adopted wolf pack. He promises the younger wolves generous rewards in exchange for tricking the leader while on a hunt. This results in the leader being expelled with Khan left to dismantle the group.

Khan does not coerce the younger wolves to aid his nefarious plot—he has the ability to understand himself and others and then channel this emotional energy in the desired direction. Khan is able to prey upon the naivety and self-indulgence of the less experienced members of the tribe. If this sounds familiar, consider what recent research has discovered on emotional intelligence.

A study led by University of Cambridge professor Jochen Menges found that when a leader gave an emotional, inspiring speech, the audience was less likely to consider the message and remembered less of the content, yet conversely, they claimed to recall more of the speech. This persuasive impact is attributed to the ability to strategically express emotions in a way where, according to the researchers, followers “stop thinking critically and just emote.”

According to Martin Kilduff from University College London, those who can control their emotions are more adept at disguising their true feelings. They purposefully shape their sentiments to express feelings that portray a more favorable impression of themselves.

The strategic disguise of one’s own emotions and the manipulation of others’ emotions for strategic ends are behaviors evident not only on Shakespeare’s stage but also in the offices and corridors where power and influence are traded.—Martin Kilduff

Stéphane Côté, a University of Toronto psychologist, measured Machiavellian tendencies as it relates to emotional intelligence. He and his team found that employees with higher emotional intelligence were significantly more likely to engage in harmful behaviors that demeaned and embarrassed others for personal gain.

As these studies show, the more people sharpen their emotional skills, the better they become at manipulating others. This is not meant to undermine the value of being emotionally intelligent, but it does show that each of us must remain hypervigilant against the Shere Khans in our organizations who are able to stroke our ego through charisma or empathy. We cannot confuse compassion for affection, nor can we mistake competence for integrity.

Don’t let your workplace become a jungle. Build the culture on collaboration and team achievement so others don’t perceive value in being a lone contributor. Emphasize ethical decision making over “winning.” Then the bare necessities of life will come to you.

Walter White on Ethical Fading

Some leaders deceive themselves into believing that they are acting morally when they clearly are not. Consider Walter White from the show Breaking Bad. Walter was a regular guy – taught high school, had a loving family, and followed the rules – until he was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer. To ensure that his family would be provided for after his death, Walter decided to start making and selling drugs.

Feeling that the end justified the means, Walter began a path into drug dealing, murder, and countless other immoral deeds. At first these crimes weighed on him, but as their severity escalated, his guilt diminished. It didn’t take long before his “nice guy” identity was replaced by an all-out bad guy.

Like Walter, leaders often rationalize actions that they otherwise know to be wrong. Whether it involves taking shortcuts or telling an untruth, leaders rarely identify their behaviors as corrupt.

Research indicates that when we think we’re analyzing different ethical resolutions, often we are really trying to validate the decision that we have already made. This self-deception allows leaders to behave unethically while simultaneously fooling them into believing that their moral principles have been upheld. The ethical aspects “fade” away, hence the term ethical fading.

For those afflicted with ethical fading, their misconduct usually starts small and exacerbates with every occurrence until the leader is unrecognizable to their former self. Others rationalize their actions by deceiving themselves into believing that only they understand “the truth.”

Don’t fall into Walter’s trap. If you can avoid taking that first step into a morally questionable activity, then you can avoid the path towards more corrupt acts.

Your ethics won’t fade if you don’t let it.