What does an illegal football tackle in Japan have to do with ethical decision making? More than you’d think, as it turned out.
In a news conference as reported in a NY Times article, the offending player claimed that he was told by his coaches to “crush” the quarterback, with the goal of causing injury. He apologized for being “too weak” and not being “strong enough to say no” to the coaches’ order.
Lest you think that this only happened in Japan because of the cultural norm to obey authority, recall the central tenet of the movie A Few Good Men, in which two U.S. Marines followed orders against their moral judgment and led to the death of a fellow Marine.
In fact, following orders even when it goes against one’s moral judgment is so common that social psychologists gave it a name: displacement of responsibility. By blaming an authority figure, one can excuse him/herself from taking responsibility for the unethical conduct. It is one of many ways with which we practice moral disengagement – the act of distancing ourselves from the unethical conduct that we commit.
Moral disengagement is practiced throughout history in misdeeds and atrocities around the world, including the Holocaust. Below is a list of the many methods:
The real danger of moral disengagement is that the perpetrator is not often aware that the action is unethical. Multiply that by whole teams, divisions, and management ranks, and a company could have a huge problem. Just Google “biggest corporate scandals” and you’ll find plenty of examples in which the companies’ misdeeds are enabled by tens, hundreds or even thousands of their own employees.
For a company to have an ethical culture, employees must not only know what the ethical standards are, they must also fend off temptations to morally disengage. This doesn’t happen magically. An ethical culture requires deliberate efforts to achieve. These efforts don’t have to be costly or complicated; they just need to be genuine and persistent.
Do you have any personal examples of moral disengagement?
Contact Principle Compliance to learn how we can help enhance your company’s ethical culture.