Ethical Blind Spots

How to Minimize Their Impact

ARTICLE | Mar 27, 2018

By Kevin Duggan, ICMA-CM

The old cliché "what you don't know won't hurt you" is contradicted on a daily basis in life, including in local government, and it is particularly erroneous when it comes to ethics.

In the book Blind Spots, authors Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel make a convincing case based on their behavioral research on how both individuals and organizations suffer ethical lapses. This can be due to their inability to recognize when they are dealing with an ethical question or to fully comprehend the ramifications of the ethical decisions they are making.

Here are points the authors deduce from their research with individuals:

  • There is a frequent struggle in each of us between what we "want" to do versus what we "should" do. We are often biased toward what we want to do.
  • We often don't reflect carefully enough on our choices, which often leads to overlooking the ethical challenges that are often part of these decisions.
  • It is easy for us to underestimate how much we can "fool ourselves" through rationalization.
  • Individuals generally overestimate the degree to which they are ethical: We often fail to appreciate that "good people" can make "bad ethical choices."

Their observations about organizations include:

  • Informal values (and accepted behavior) can overwhelm stated values and formal ethics programs.
  • Lacking a leader who consistently models ethical decision making, an organization is not likely to be consistently ethical.
  • Unethical conduct needs to be labeled and confronted consistently.
  • Organizational success with ethical conduct will be determined by what kind of conduct or behavior is or is not supported and rewarded.
  • Time pressure and a short "horizon" into the future will increase the odds of unethical conduct.
  • Members of an organization will be tempted to engage in unethical behavior to fulfill obligations to authority.

Acknowledge Susceptibility

Overconfidence and complacency, both personal and organizational, are among our greatest challenges to conducting ourselves in an ethical manner. The struggle between what we would like to do in a particular circumstance—because it is easier, safer, or more likely to achieve a desired outcome—versus what we are ethically obligated to do, also can put us at risk of not fully identifying our blind spots regarding a particular issue or decision.

Bazerman and Tenbrunsel believe that the first step toward personal and organizational success with ethical conduct is convincing yourself that you and your organization are susceptible to ethical blind spots.

In local government, we are just as susceptible to ethical blind spots as any other institution. Sometimes organizational blind spots are the result of structural or cultural issues within an organization. Problems can result from a lack of sufficient checks and balances and other organizational oversight.

At other times, an organizational culture can develop over time that ignores, or even encourages, cutting corners and ignoring ethical misconduct.

Are you certain that your staff could not be swayed into making bad choices because of:

  • A failure to identify and understand the ethical consequences of their decisions and actions?
  • A desire to accomplish an organizational goal or achieve a certain outcome?
  • A desire to avoid conflict with a fellow employee, supervisor, elected official, or member of the public?
  • A desire to avoid admitting that a mistake or poor decision has been made?
  • The appeal of being perceived favorably by management and coworkers?
  • A belief that their position of authority in the organization gives them a certain leeway to behave in a way that would not otherwise be viewed as acceptable?

Can you be assured that you and your staff can't be fooled into such bad choices as:

  • Using a government credit card for a purchase that an objective party would reasonably conclude was primarily for personal benefit?
  • Failing to completely disclose all the downsides of a staff recommendation in order to help achieve what you or your staff view as a needed outcome?
  • Avoiding full, clear, and timely disclosure of an organizational misstep for fear of public embarrassment or other consequences?
  • Convincing oneself that risking the loss of a job, organizational standing, or friendships outweighs the obligation to report ethical misconduct?
  • Believing that you don't need to take action by convincing yourself that it is "someone else's job" to deal with the issue?

Positive Strategies

Unfortunately, there are no strategies for dealing with personal or organizational blind spots that are guaranteed to be successful. Here are some suggestions to help increase the odds of success:

  • Recognize that you and your organization most likely have an overly optimistic view of ethical health.
  • Avoid complacency and recognize that a lack of a recent ethical failure is not a guarantee for the future.
  • Take preventative actions including training and the use of case studies to increase awareness of the potential ethical implications of decisions and actions.
  • Work to counter your ethical blind spots by seriously reflecting on decisions you are making and by thoughtfully considering what ethical choices may be at play.
  • Seek the opinion of others whose judgment you respect (and who have nothing to lose or gain from a decision) regarding possible courses of action. Encourage your employees to do the same.
  • Recognize when you might be doing the wrong thing to accomplish an otherwise admirable goal.

The more you and your organization recognize the susceptibility we all have to ethical blind spots, the more likely you can minimize their impact and the likelihood of an ethical crisis.

While it may be impossible to completely negate the effect of ethical blind spots, the best way to begin to minimize their impact is to recognize that we do, indeed, have them.

Kevin Duggan, ICMA-CM, is ICMA West Coast Regional Director, Mountain View, California (kduggan@icma.org), and is the former city manager of Mountain View.

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