As a corporation is a legal ‘entity’, it does pay taxes and has certain other organisimal-type characteristics, it is easy to forget that the smallest common denominator of behavior is usually a single individual choice. As a corollary, the phrase “the people make the organization, not the organization the people” warrants consideration. In the corporate context, people may exhibit elements of crowd psychology as noted by Gustave LeBon’s seminal work indicating lowered inhibitions. Alternatively, individuals may choose courses action based upon the assumption that they are not observed as the famous example in Plato’s Republic in which an invisible person would be thought to want to commit various crimes knowing that he would not be caught. Thus, in consideration of corporate ethics, there is a recognition of both external and internal factors in the subsequent motivation and justification of a behavior.
Why do people do what they do? The utilitarian version of the ultimate goal of human existence is it is the goal of an organism to simply “pursue pleasure and avoid pain”. >From a behavioral perspective, this explanation makes great deal of sense in that studies have shown, with proper conditioning, people can be made (or, made to want) to do most any task. A key part of this prior statement should be emphasized: that is, the behaviors that are of concern, though perhaps mightily influenced, are a choice and the discussion which follows is largely concerned with beliefs that originate within oneself and not externally imposed. Admittedly, in many cases the proverbial carrot is dangled by someone else but, one must first want the carrot and persist in doing so to the extent that one makes plans and considers the consequences of attempting to get it.
In seeking to understand why people act the way they do, one begins a discourse that is perhaps the very essence of psychology. But, as in any review of such a potentially thorny issue, it is helpful to ‘step back’ to explicitly define what sort of behaviors are done prior to seeking the rationale for such action. Though there are many notable examples of unethical and improper behavior, it is worth mentioning at least of few of them so as the give substance, style and a context to the matters at hand:
In each of these cases, the motivation was for personal gain, even in the context of corporate settings. From a behaviorist viewpoint, the idea of reinforcement contingencies come into play and we realize that, in addition to simply desiring a ‘positive’, it is also a “pleasure” to have the removal of a ‘negative’. With this understanding, a richer context for motivation within the corporate setting is seen: people choose to act not simply in pursuit of a favorable outcome but also to avoid or stop a undesirable activity. These desired outcomes are not just monetary gain but may come out of a desire for psychological comfort as might be evidenced by someone motivated to ‘try to fit in’ and ‘be like everyone else’.
Consider the famous (infamous?) maxim of the English gentleman’s evening conversation with a famous but unnamed American ‘movie star’ on a crossing of the Atlantic:
To go further as to how a specific behavior could be justified, there are a number of factors of ‘factor groups’ that give insight to the ways in which unethical behavior is justified.
According to Bird, there are four cultural factors that are useful to understand the beliefs that people hold that, if not providing justification, at least influences the course of their choices.
There are perhaps two schools of thought on what constitutes ethical behavior. The first, which could be described by adherents as being the a priori sense of right and wrong that we have within us… the gut feeling, the nagging doubt and the essential intuition that is either hard-wire or wired so early that most of us do not remember the work being done. The second is based more on a situational or contextual definition which, interestingly enough, plays upon an built-in sense of fairness (if not outright right and wrong). Referred to as being the essence of a distributive system of justice, this key to this system is understanding that it is valid only from the perception of the stakeholders. That people seek to establish a sense of equity in any exchange type relationship gives ample justification, again from the perspective of the stakeholder, to what might seem to an outsider as construing unethical conduct (Trevino & Weaver 2003, pp.268-269).
This theory integrates both cultural and institutional factors in the consideration of why people choose to perform or choose to perpetuate unethical behaviors. In short, it is posited the cultural and institutional systems work together to emphasize the outcome over the process. Further, this emphasis on egotistical reasoning enables a “cognitive separation from traditional social rules and norms… [increasing] the willingness of people to ‘have no moral qualms’ about choosing any means necessary to achieve their goals” (Cullen, Parboteeah, & Hoegl 2004, pp. 411-412). Anomie theory, echoing Bird’s previous points, posits the cultural factors of achievement, individualism and materialism as influencing people to want to make unethical decisions.
Certain, there are a host of factors whose cumulative affect is likely driving motivation. One cannot justify unethical behavior by these mean yet, by providing insight into motive, one can begin to see the context of how a decision is made and a behavior is exhibited. If it is true that there is no single behavior that did not first begin with a thought, then it would follow that there would be thoughts which precede actual cases of unethical behavior. By reviewing cases of misconduct as well as the available insights into motivation, these thoughts can be categorized according to one of the following four criteria (Gellerman 1986, p. 88):
In summary, though it seems too simple to be the case, motivation is a complex matter but once born, the afterbirth of the behavior must be psychologically dealt with so as to minimize ‘guilt’ or the possibility thereof. As Gellerman proposes, these anxiety-reducing beliefs allow one to at least somewhat happily co-exist with one’s self and the continued pursuit of ‘what seems best for me’.
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