Ethics and Trust: Interview with Dr. Robert Hoyk

A few months ago I received a publicist’s offer to review a book. I usually take a quick look, but I almost always say no. This case was different.

The book is The Ethical Executive: Becoming Aware of the Root Causes of Unethical Behavior, by Dr. Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey, and the title was good enough for me to take the review copy.

What grabbed me was their idea that ethics is usually considered a philosophical issue, but the management application of ethics is largely a matter of psychology. The Ethical Executive lists 45 psychological Traps that drive people to behave unethically.

Following is an interview with author Dr. Robert Hoyk:

CHG: First, you have three categories of Traps—Primary, Defensive, and Personality. Can you explain them?

RH: Primary Traps directly drive people to behave unethically. These are the main traps that pull us in, that provoke us or trick us into illegal or unethical transgression.
An example of a Primary Trap is Power. The more the powerholder uses his power, the more he attributes the successes of his employees to his own leadership (“My orders and influence caused the workers to perform effectively”); Over time, the more the powerholder attributes the success of his employees to his own leadership, the more he begins to devalue his employees. (“It was my success! Not theirs! They were just following orders.”)

Defensive Traps are attempts to find easy ways to reverse course after a transgression has already been committed. They are reactions to two internal stimuli: guilt and shame. Guilt and especially shame are very painful emotions. They call into question the positive view we have of ourselves.
Defensive Traps are insidious because they annihilate or at least minimize √ our guilt and shame. They help us deny our transgressions, thus setting us up for repeated unethical behavior.

An example of a Defensive Trap is Advantageous Comparison. Advantageous Comparison allows the individual who has committed an unethical transgression to lessen his guilt by comparing what he has done to something worse. For example, “Damaging some property is no big deal when you consider that others are beating people up.”
Personality Traps are personal traits that can make us more vulnerable to wrongdoing.

An example is Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). SDO is a trait that delineates one’s “preference for inequality among social groups.” It is the wish that the groups and organizations you belong to (business teams, corporation, social class, gender, ethnicity, country, and so on) be “superior” and “dominate.” SDO can be measured by a questionnaire that has been developed by Felicia Pratto and her colleagues at Stanford University.

CHG: What makes your approach to ethics different from others? What does this psychological approach reveal that other approaches might not?

RH: Most approaches to ethics are philosophical. Philosophical ethics is important because it tells us what the right action is given different situations. But there’s a problem. Even if we know what the right thing to do is, we often don’t do it. Why? We often fall prey to psychological traps. Morality will improve to a great extent when ethics is integrated with psychology. Ethics will continue its crucial job of advising us what the right behavior is and psychology will motivate us to do the right thing and help us stop our transgressions.

CHG: In philosophy, this is what’s called the problem of incontinence: how to explain knowing the right thing to do, yet not doing it.

RH: The Ethical Executive places a major focus on the root causes of unethical behavior—psychological dynamics. It inaugurates a new priority in the field that will lead to a clearer vista and fresh solutions.

CHG: I’m not sure I agree with the word ‘cause’ here; but I surely agree it helps drive practical actions.

RH: In that vein, here’s a quote from author Anthony Parinello:

"This book will not teach you how to be ethical, it will educate you to recognize the day-to-day ethical traps that we all face, analyze them and give the practical, usable information you need to respond in a way that supports good intention, fair decisions, and abundant wealth.”

CHG: Your book came out in September 2008, before the latest flood of unethical behavior, largely in the financial sector. If you were to rewrite the book with this most recent data, what primary patterns would we see revealed?

RH: The 45 traps in The Ethical Executive are universal and timeless. We might have used different examples, but the traps would be the same. Having said that, we believe there are still more traps to discover.

Type A Personality may be such a trap. A Type A Personality is “characterized by a continuously harrying sense of time urgency.” This trait activates Trap 15: Time Pressure. People who are running a hundred miles per hour take short cuts when it comes to taking the time to make good ethical decisions and even to be aware that there might be a potential ethical dilemma.

CHG: How can executives and employees protect their organizations and themselves from these traps?

RH: First, know the 45 traps. Voyagers who know the location of quicksand navigate around it. When we clearly identify danger, we can prepare for it and avoid it.
Second, hire a psychologist to be part of the ethics and compliance team. Many of the traps incite powerful emotions that in turn pull victims toward wrongdoing. In general, emotions provoked by traps are: fear, anxiety, distress, shame, anger and sadness. Emotions this strong can bring us all to our knees. Moreover, be wary, we all have the capacity to shut down our emotions. If we don’t feel anything, it doesn’t always mean our emotions are gone. A psychologist can assist executives and employees deal with their intense emotions.

CHG: What does all this have to do with trust?

RH: In general, an ethical behavior is an action that engenders trust. It is a behavior that, as much as possible, creates non-zero-sum situations.
These two terms, non-zero-sum and zero-sum are taken from game theory. In zero-sum situations, the outcomes of those involved are “inversely related.” One person’s benefit “is the other’s loss.” In competitive sports, when one football team wins the other loses.

CHG: Ethical relationships are inherently relational; Robinson Crusoe had no need of ethics, at least before Friday.

RH: In non-zero-sum situations, one group’s win doesn’t have to be a misfortune for the other. The more that the needs of all parties are identical, the more you have a non-zero-sum situation. When the Apollo astronauts were marooned in space in 1970, their needs completely overlapped. The results of their actions to get back home would be either uniformly good or bad for all three of them.

Overall, ethical actions drive non-zero-sum interactions, which create more shared benefit and mutual trust.

CHG: And overall, greater economic benefit as well.  Dr. Hoyk, thanks very much for taking the time to share your thinking with us.