The Language of Moral Education in Business: a NYTimes Moment in Time

Yesterday, May 2, the New York Times initiated an interesting global experiment: asking huge numbers of people, all around the planet, to take a single photograph—all at precisely the same time, 15:00 GMT. Read more about it here

A cool experiment? Indeed. Imagine the impression of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of photos, all of precisely the same moment in human history. I can’t wait to see it.

But that’s not what I want to point out. Because the way in which the Times announced the contest tells us about how to develop a sense of morality, a shared sense of ethics, in a large group: in this case, a world population.

Here’s that link again:

If you read it, you’ll be struck by the language, as were many of the early commenters on the article. Here is some sample language:

Do I have to take my picture at exactly 15:00?
No. We don’t expect atomic-clock precision. And we’d rather you send a good picture taken one minute after the hour than a mediocre picture taken exactly on the hour.

What if I cheat?
Come on. Why would you?

Look, we trust you. Besides, there aren’t enough cups of coffee in New York to keep our tiny staff awake for the time it would take to peruse the metadata in every single JPEG we receive. So we’re relying on you to understand that any significant departure from the benchmark hour only subverts the communal enterprise.

Of course, if we’re presented with evidence that your entry wasn’t taken close to 15:00, we’ll remove it from the gallery.

What about adding or subtracting or combining elements?
Again, don’t…

And if I do so anyway?
Really, why would you? We’re not going to pore over submissions looking for fakery and fraud. But we will remove any photographs that are demonstrably manipulated. Please, just spare us.

The Language of Moral (Business) Education

The Times is attempting to deal with a group. In this case, a remarkably global, diverse, and very loosely connected group. If even small numbers of people behave badly, they have the power to subvert the project.

I suggest this is a typical situation for moral education. What do you do to encourage members of a group to behave in a way that encourages the greater good for all?

  • You could simply depend on the free market of ideas, believing that if the photography idea is a good one, it will survive the market; and it doesn’t survive the free market, then it was a bad idea that didn’t deserve to live in the first place.
  • You could define a set of incentives to encourage the right group behavior, define metrics to measure the right group behavior, then tune the incentives to maximize it. 
  • Alternatively, you could enact a set of regulations about the contest. You could then have a government agency enforce them.

Or–you could choose the tools of moral education.

You acknowledge your powerlessness to compel the behavior of others. Instead, you appeal to their conscience.

What about cheating? You go directly to the potential cheater and say, ‘Really, why would you?’ What’s to keep someone from cheating? Again, make it personal: say, ‘Look, we trust you…We rely on you…to not subvert the communal enterprise…Please, just spare us.’

This is the language of moral education. Appeal directly to the individuals. Appeal to their innate sense of community. Acknowledge the absence of your power to compel their compliance. Indeed, acknowledge your dependence on their willingness to comply.

That’s the language of moral education. It’s disarmingly honest, transparent, and vulnerable. It acknowledges an individual conscience.

And it works.

Amazing, isn’t it, how infrequently we think of applying it to our challenging business situations.

Johnson & Johnson: The Corporate Tiger Woods

The pharmaceutical industry has had more than its share of ethical challenges. It is not viewed by most people as harshly as the financial services industry, but most trust surveys will show it ranks near the bottom of industries in terms of trust.

I find this particularly ironic, because a great number of employees of pharmaceutical companies are genuinely and sincerely committed to bettering the lives and well-being of patients, and of supporting the physician and hospital markets. Some of them are self-deluding, but not all; and they have much data to back up their beliefs.

At the same time, the geography of the pharmaceutical industry is fraught with slippery slopes. When does supporting research cross the line into suborning favorable opinions? When does patient education become patient brainwashing by TV ads? Where is the dividing line between quoting opinion leaders and wining and dining them while soliciting the quotes?

These questions are every bit as challenging as questions about marking to market in the absence of transactions, or about the line between consumer choice and engineered addictive foods. In Pharma, it is never easy to distinguish where the plain ends and the mountain begins.

Johnson & Johnson Made it Look Easy

Which is why Johnson & Johnson, for so many years, made it look easy. First of all, they are not primarily known as a pharmaceutical company. Instead, they are known for two things: baby powder, and the iconic Tylenol response. They still teach cases in business schools about J&J’s quick and forthright response to a case of Tylenol tampering at the retail level umpteen years ago.

Second, and more important, they are known for the Credo–a set of beliefs articulated by Robert Wood Johnson in 1943, frequently quoted, and posted in front hallways of the company’s buildings in hometown New Brunswick, New Jersey (and I believe elsewhere as well).

I and many others have cited it as notable for making shareholder rewards the result of, rather than the purpose of, serving customers and community. J&J got corporate social responsibility and customer focus literally decades before other companies did.

That Was Then, This Was Now

Then, things changed. Or to be more clear, it suddenly became apparent that things had already changed.

First, the company announced another recall, including Benadryl, Motrin, and–again–Tylenol.

Problem is–the recall was a result of complaints starting 20 months prior. This was the exact opposite of the promptness for which Johnson & Johnson had become known in Round One.

But that’s not all. On the same day, the Justice Department filed charges against Johnson & Johnson for a fairly simple, in-your-face, kickback scheme. The federal case joins a whistleblower suit filed by two former employees of Omnicare, the company to whom the kickbacks were paid.

Whistleblowers, Justice Department, kickbacks. Say it ain’t so, Joe.

What’s it Mean When a Leader Falters?

It is troubling when the pharmaceutical firm with the most clearly positive image for ethical and consumer-friendly behavior gets serious egg on its face.

It is even more troubling that the nature of these offenses directly contradict the reasons for the previous good reputation: namely, transparency versus subterfuge, and timeliness versus foot-dragging. This is not a PR problem, at least not in the main; it is a contradiction of values. This is the corporate version of Tiger Woods.

But most troubling of all, to me at least, is the besmirching of the Credo. That was as well-written a document as I am aware of in the corporate world. I know people at Johnson & Johnson who speak about the importance of the Credo; I know others who know the firm more directly, and who are much more outspoken about the values-driven nature of the firm.

Now I feel stupid, and those others look like dupes. This incident has ramifications well beyond the negative press for Johnson & Johnson. It is a failure of culture, and has to call into doubt the sincerity and the power of other companies’ programs for values-based leadership. It fosters cynicism, an emotion already in serious oversupply in and around business.

And absolutely worst of all: I’ll bet big bucks that nearly all the wrongdoers on the J&J side don’t see anything wrong with what they did. I’ll bet we’ll hear phrases like "technical distinctions," "reasonable people can differ," and "narrow definitions of the law." Sometimes it looks dark out not because it’s night, but because your head is stuck where the sun don’t shine. And that’s a form of blindness that is catching.

I find that all pretty depressing. I welcome comments in particular from TrustMatters readers in the pharma industry. How are you feeling about this?



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.