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Why is doing the “right thing” difficult?

Do the “right thing”, not the “easy thing”...

This is not as simple as it seems. Why is doing the “right thing” difficult”? Because we don't know what the “right thing” is! We are all born with an inherently egocentric, subjective consciousness, perception. What we consider right/wrong is true only from our own self-serving, self-justifying viewpoint. And since we exist in a fully integrated, interdependent system where each calculation, action should be aimed at the well-being of the whole collective, “our right” is almost certainly bad for the collective.

In order to do the “right thing” first we would need to acquire a completely selfless, objective viewpoint but this is difficult to do. Our ego will also push us towards the wrong conclusion because it is confused sometimes between right, easy, moral and comfort.

Research Finding on Why it is Difficult to “Doing the Right Thing”

These findings are based on a literature review by Jennifer Kish-Gephart and colleagues (2010) about the determinants of doing the wrong thing - lying, cheating, stealing - in the workplace.

Demographic characteristics had nothing to do with lying, cheating, or stealing. However, those who were less satisfied with work were more likely to cross the line.

● Some characteristics of work organizations predicted unethical choices on the part of their employees: not being concerned with the well-being of the multiple stakeholders (e.g., other workers, customers, and community members) and a work culture that did not make clear what was acceptable or unacceptable.

○ The mere existence of an explicit code of conduct was not as important in reducing unethical actions as was a code that was enforced.

Some issues at work predicted doing the wrong thing: those with little apparent consequence, those removed in time from their consequences, and those in which the negative consequences of doing the wrong thing were spread over a large number of people.

● Accordingly, by extrapolation, those who do the right thing are people who do not see others as means to ends, those who believe they are responsible for what happens to themselves, and those who are happy.

● Those who do the right thing are in groups with strong social commitment to the welfare of all and clear - and enforced - guidelines about what are acceptable actions.

● Those who do the right thing are aware of the large and immediate and specific consequences of what they do.

What can we do as individuals?

● Have the perspective that doing the right thing is often not the easiest or most comfortable route, but the only route to take if you want to drive change for the better. I called my team out in front of everyone for bullying someone (including my boss). My heart was racing and I thought I may lose my job. After doing research this week on this, this is a normal response and the reason I was able to follow through is that my intent was good and I wanted my boss and my colleagues to treat others with respect in order for us to create an effective team. I was in the mindset of “social commitment to the welfare of all”. Of course when I have my self serving days, I don’t always do the right thing.

● Do not judge yourself for doing the “wrong thing”. Try to make it right in a way you can. I was in a rush the other day and some lady stepped out into the road to stop me as there was a bus stopped in the opposite direction and the driver forgot to put the stop sign out. I was in a bad mood and I was slowing down anyway but I let my self-serving ego get to me and you can imagine what I did. As I sat there I knew what my next step was. I had to apologize. I rolled down my window and apologized and wished her a great day. She in turn said she was freaking out and thought a kid was going to get run over but she appreciated my apology. Her attention was good, mine was not. It was hard and uncomfortable to apologize but I felt better and I am sure she did too! And laugh at yourself after, or whatever will work to not judge yourself.

What can we do as leaders in our organizations?

“CEOs and managers at all levels, when an earnest employee comes to you with bad news, the smart, fiduciary, and honest response is not ire or cover-up or panic with respect to one's "valuation" or one's reputation/brand. Rather the obvious and universal response must always be to face the problem, fess-up to the board, customers and public, seek to fix the problem openly and transparently, and then reward the brave staffer who trusted you to do things in an honorable and wise manner” (Matt Weeks).

Encourage agency and communion. We need to do whatever we can to make people happy and satisfied. We need to put a human face on "those" people who may be affected by our actions. We need guidelines about what is acceptable, and we need to enforce these as leaders to create a culture of “doing the right thing”.

“Doing the right thing will not be easy and it will not necessarily result in a "success" for you. But it will allow you to sleep at night”.

Article Resources

Kish-Gephart, J. J., Harrison, D. A., & Treviño, L.K. (2010). Bad apples, bad cases, and bad barrels: Meta-analytic evidence about sources of unethical decisions at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 1-31.

Article Written by Denise Young, WIL National Diversity and Inclusion Advisor and CEO and Consultant of Tiger’s Eye Advisory Group, a people-focused business solutions company that values collaboration and empowerment. She creates collaborative work spaces where “everyone is at the table”. She has a Bachelor of Management and a Masters of Arts in Communication and Technology from University of Alberta.

Reach out to Denise if you or your organization is interested in Diversity and Inclusion Programs, Leadership Workshops or Communication Strategic Planning.

Connect with Denise:

LinkedIN: Denise Young



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