In a recent article by FT journalist Robert Armstrong on the Volkswagen scandal, he stated that “we have to assume something went wrong with VW’s culture such that immoral behaviour became acceptable”.
This statement really struck me as I have a fundamental belief that the majority of the human population is ‘good’ and want to ‘do the right thing’. So how do immoral behaviours and practices become acceptable and widespread in an organisation? How are they not dealt with as soon as they are visible?
As individuals in organisations we can be subject to tension between our own opinion of what is right and what we are asked to do or what we see others doing.
Why, if someone is doing the wrong thing is it so hard for someone to ‘speak up’?
Ingrained in us are a number of quirks that start to shed light on this challenge. Quirks, which if allowed to fester and flourish unchecked in your culture can be damaging to your culture. Here I focus on two.
Quirk 1. We are inherently obedient…
What this means is that we are unlikely to challenge managers and what people in more senior positions tell us to do. Let’s take the famous Milgram study. In 1963, Stanley Milgram ran an experiment. He dressed his fellow psychologists in lab coats and invited hapless students to participate in a study for course credit. The study was simple – press a button to inflict an electric charge on another person. With only a few prompts from the researcher, the majority of research participants (65%) went on to inflict levels of electric charge that they believe would kill the other person (despite a person behind the screen having shared they have a heart condition, screaming in pain and then being non-responsive).
How could this happen?
Something seems to happen when we are in a hierarchical structure where we are compelled to obey what we see as ‘orders’. We do this for a number of reasons. We want to avoid consequences, we want a reward or we believe that the authority of the leader is legitimate. It appears that we can ‘obey’ even in extreme circumstances, when ‘orders’ conflict with our values by:
- justifying responsibility by assigning behaviour to authority rather than ourselves - ‘my manager told me I had to do this’;
- defining the behaviour expected as routine. This particularly occurs when we feel what has been asked of us is wrong but no-one else around us is objecting to it – this causes an individual to doubt their concerns.
What does this mean? The behaviour of leaders and what they tolerate is critical. Leaders must demonstrate the habits that they want present in their organisation and must not ignore behaviour that they don’t. Equally there should be systems inside the organisation encouraging individuals to ask questions - ‘does this make sense? Is this the right thing to do?’ – and make it OK to raise a concern even if no-one else feels concerned.
I wonder how many of the engineers in Volkswagen, who knew things were wrong, looked around with unease and began to doubt their concern when none of their peers were speaking up? When their leader effectively was saying ‘keep going’. What about the 5,000 employees in Wells Fargo? What would you do?
Quirk 2. We won’t speak up if we think someone else will…
In the summer of 1968 a woman was attacked outside a block of apartments. Despite it being summer and most people having their windows open, despite nearly every resident admitting that they heard the woman screaming, not one person called the police. How could this happen? Were those people inherently cruel?
This incident sparked enormous outrage and a huge body of research. What was found is critical for all business leaders to be aware of.
We are talking about the diffusion of responsibility linked to the presence of a crowd.
What happens is that with more people as witnesses to an event, the more our personal responsibility diminishes. As the people in the story above recounted, ‘I assumed that someone else would call.’ And we do that – I know I do. A street lamp in my street has been black for a week. I haven’t called the council because I assume one of my elderly, highly community minded neighbours will be on the case. The lamp is still black and now having written this blog I’m compelled to call the council tomorrow!
But what about the employees at Volkswagen or Wells Fargo? Their thinking may have gone along the lines of ‘I know something is wrong, I feel uncomfortable but surely someone else has raised this…’
As a bystander we go through the following thought processes;
- Notice something is happenings
- Interpret there is something wrong
- Feel a degree of responsibility
- Choose to act (or not)
Where action is distorted is when bullet points 2 ‘interpret something is wrong’ and 3 ‘feel a degree of responsibility’ occur. The first point relates to the same dynamic outlined earlier in the article – if no one else around you is interpreting the behaviour as ‘wrong’ you can start to doubt that anything is wrong. Think of a fire alarm ringing – we don’t tend to move to act unless we see other people moving. Secondly, even if people do feel something is wrong, if lots of other people also observe the wrongdoing, individuals feel less responsible to act (the ‘surely my neighbour will call’ syndrome).
So what can be done to combat this effect in organisations? Cultivating an environment where there is clarity around acceptable and unacceptable behaviours is critical. Combining this with an expectation to act when they see something that doesn’t look right is critical. People will not act unless it is ingrained in them that if they don’t do something, no one else will.
Think about the advertising campaigns related to left luggage at train stations or airports. These campaigns capture the essence of how you shift the bystander effect. They are clear about what is ‘wrong’, they emphasise the importance to ‘speak up’ without consequence and they encourage people to listen to their instinct. I particularly like the ‘it’s probably nothing but…’ anti-terrorist campaign by the UK Government as an example of this.
If we believe people inherently want to do the right thing, it is up to leaders to create an environment where this is possible.
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