Self-Deception – The ethical bleach that removes the willingness to speak up 

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Originally posted on the “Ethic Intelligence” blog, Wendy Addison, Founder and CEO of SpeakOut SpeakUp Ltd, discusses the process of self-deception as it relates to corporate compliance and ethics. According to Addison, self-deception is the ethical bleach that removes the willingness to speak up.The “should self” behaves according to ethical principles and in line with our idealized self, whereas the “want self” is characterized by self-interest and relative disregard for ethical considerations. These two selves are in conflict with one another and distract people away from their intrinsic values. The question for employers becomes how can compliance-training programs be designed to empower employees to act on their “should self” instincts?

Wendy lived through an eleven-year battle against corporate corruption in a case known as South Africa’s Enron, the biggest corporate disaster in South Africa’s history. Since securing justice she has maximised her experience through the study of social psychology and the neuroscience of decision-making at Stanford University in addition to being accredited to train for Social FitnessTM, a course developed over 25 years at Stanford by Professor Emeritus Philip Zimbardo and Dr Lynne Henderson, Ph.D.

Most of us would like to believe that if we had been at Enron or at any of the companies recently prosecuted for corporate misconduct, we would have done the right thing and spoken up. However, statistics show that although a high percentage of people feel willing to report misbehavior only a fraction actually does. What accounts for this incongruence between our willingness and the reality of our actions?

Evidence shows that there a number of reasons, but here I will focus on Self Deception, the ethical bleach that removes the willingness to speak up. People tend to mis-predict how they will behave in the future, often overestimating the extent to which they would engage in socially desirable behaviours. At the same time, people mis-remember past behaviors as being more positive than they actually were. Our self-predictions generally reflect our hopes and desires rather than realistic self-understanding.

What is the sequence of influences that drives the change in our behaviors?

1. I should tell this interviewer that his behavior is inappropriate
2. I should speak up about Paul double claiming on expenses
3. I should donate more money to cancer charities

During the prediction phase and prior to taking any action the Should Self dominates and is often distorted in a self-enhancing way, characterised as rational, cognitive, thoughtful and cool-headed. ‘Should’ choices are made purposely with an eye on the long-term horizon, shifting attention to intrinsic, core values.

Ethical intentions are encompassed in the belief that we should behave according to ethical principles and in line with our idealised self.

1. I want this job
2. I want to keep my job. I want Paul to like me. I don’t want to look like a snitch. I want to be seen as a team player
3. I want to spend some money on myself.

During the Action phase, the Want Self dominates reflected in behavior that is emotional, affective, impulsive and hot-headed. The Want Self diverges from the Should Self, getting into the driving seat and taking control of decision-making and action.
The Want Self emerges at or near the time of taking action and recedes thereafter. It is characterised by self-interest and relative disregard for ethical considerations, distracting people away from their intrinsic values. Visceral responses dominate, such as fear which in turn drives instinctive self-preservation behaviors with short-sighted tradeoffs.

1. No one got hurt
2. Everyone else does what Paul does. There should be better checks in place. It’s not my business.
3. The cancer charity gets tons of support. The online system for donating money to cancer charities is terrible.

Because we have the capacity to recognise that we’ve behaved in line with our want self and compute the outcomes as a result of this behavior, the recollection process is one of restoring the should self by adjusting the importance of various abstract aspects of the situation. We selectively remember pieces of the story or persuade ourselves that our behavior was acceptable because it was within the rules of the game.

The more self-deception there is, the less obvious are the ethical dimensions of a situation. It follows that the less obvious the ethical dimensions, the less likely it is that an ethical decision frame will be adopted and the more likely it is that individuals will behave unethically.

How can we align our ‘Want’ and ‘Should’ selves?
The first step is to recognise that self-deception is pervasive and has universal presence; to deny the evidence is self-deception itself.
Current training, whilst promoting an ethical ‘fix-it’ frame is partially effective, it’s too late in the game and fails to recognise the other variables in the sequence of events of acting on a decision made, particularly the innate psychological tendency for individuals to engage in self-deception.
Training needs to be directed at the sequence of events leading up to an action or inaction, so that during the prediction phase, when the should self is dominant, individuals are taught to capture and act on their intrinsic, core values which in turn lead to actions of courage and integrity.

Is your company measuring employees’ Should speak up selves instead of their aligned Should-Want selves? If it is, this measure leaves employers unsafe, uncertain and exposed to unethical practices with the self-efficacy of employees eroded.

The solution is to measure employees’ aligned Should-Want selves, their likelihood to speak up, to prevent organisational and individual self-deception.

Wendy Addison is the Founder and CEO of SpeakOut SpeakUp Ltd