When doing the right thing gets you in trouble

Concern with appearances can distort behaviour, as this research shows.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 12 Feb 2020

For leaders even remotely concerned with their legacy, doing the right thing matters. Indeed, the best leaders, you would think, apply strong personal values, such as honesty and integrity, to everything they do. 

There are occasions, however, when a concern to appear ethical can lead to exactly the kinds of unethical behaviour that you would otherwise try to avoid. 

In a series of studies, researchers Shoham Choshen-Hillel, Eugene Caruso and Alex Shaw identified three common circumstances where extrinsic morality - keeping up appearances - conflicts with intrinsic morality - doing what you believe is right.

1 - Trying to seem impartial can lead to bias

Imagine this dilemma: you have to award a top-performer bonus or recognise an employee of the month; there are two leading candidates, one of whom is your friend, and on balance this candidate performed slightly better. Do you award it to them, knowing that colleagues might think it’s showing favouritism?

In a series of eight experiments, summarised in Harvard Business Review, the researchers found that most bosses would take the other option, and favour the slightly worse candidate who isn’t their friend (in one study of 216 leaders, only 27 per cent plumped for their mate).

2 - Trying to appear fair leads to stupid decisions

Now imagine you have a scarce resource - a new computer, which you can only give to one team member. In another role-play study, the same researchers found that 45 per cent of people taking the role of managers didn’t assign the computer to any team member - wasting the resource entirely - in order to avoid appearing to favour one unfairly over the other.

3 - Trying to appear honest leads to lies

The final set of studies looked at whether people would lie in order to make it seem like they weren’t lying. This happens more often than you might think. "The business world is rife with instances in which telling the truth might make one appear dishonest,” write the researchers, using an example of a law firm or consultancy that manages to meet its minimum billable hours requirement with a client. 

The problem is, if you’re allowed 500 billable hours and you say you’ve done exactly 500 hours - even if you actually have done 500 hours - you can appear to be pulling a fast one. Across seven studies, the researchers found that people underreport outcomes in such cases 35 per cent of the time. 

The answer to all this may appear to be simple - just tell the truth. But the fact is people tell white lies, avoid awkward decisions or pre-empt claims of favouritism for a good reason - that the perception of impropriety can be almost as damaging as the thing itself. 

The researchers suggest avoiding the problem altogether by delegating decision-making in the above instances to impartial third parties, or if possible to the team. For example, the group could decide the bonus allocation through a voting system, which people tend to perceive as fairer.

Image credit: Universal Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images

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