Why we turn a blind eye to workplace misbehaviour and what you can do about it

From offering to forge signatures to ignoring blatant displays of bullying and willingly diverging from company processes or even stealing company resources (yes, even something as small as a pen or notepad), the temptation to bend the rules or turn a blind eye can be quite common. However, allowing it to become part of a company culture can be quite harmful, gradually eroding a positive culture and the ability to foster trust.

Why is it that we so easily turn a blind eye or partake in behaviours we know aren’t all too exemplary?

It sounds bad to say but there are rules and there are rules. Some, we follow because we fear the punishment. Some we follow because deep down the align with our own individual moral compass and we see the utility in them. Some we follow simply because people we like or relate to follow them. Deciding which rules to break also falls into the above three categories.

Social norms and moral licensing

Our behaviours are often swayed by those around us, especially when we’re indifferent.

If my colleagues are doing it, I should be able to as well!

This example uses social norms to create a moral licensing justification to excuse what we might otherwise see as bad behaviour.

If we’re not really drawn to one side or the other, our decision about whether to follow or break a rule will often rest with what those around us are doing. In essence, we act like part of a flock of sheep. Admittedly, if you don’t care for the people around you, you’re unlikely to follow them (and may even do the opposite because you want to convey yourself as being nothing like them). However, if you do like them and want to be seen to be like them, then you want to be afforded the opportunity to act like them as well. Being deprived of that chance simply doesn’t seem fair (ironic when we’re talking about the ability to steal)!

Building on this, moral licensing provides a form of justification that helps a person build a narrative that even if it involves breaking a rule, their behaviour is ok. After all, if other people are doing it, even though it’s a rule being broken it suggests that the problem isn’t with the behaviour but rather the rule. This is the same approach taken when we think that breaking the rule is for a greater good (ie the white lie). Whilst it can sometimes be true that rules are outdated and don’t reflect the current views of society, in a smaller group, there is the danger here that a pack mentality can quickly form to encourage bad behaviour and that this can then quickly lead to further bad behaviour which can shift the culture both using this justification and the resulting spillover effects (I’ve already done something bad, I might as well keep going).

I don’t want to get involved

Whether you call them tattletales, whistleblowers or dibberdobbers, people hate those who intervene where it’s not perceived to be their place. For this reason, doing the right thing can often come with negative implications that deter many people from acting. Similarly, even where there are no visible consequences, our desire to stay out of harm’s way means that more often than not, even if we’re able to help someone, we’ll shy away from the opportunity. Together, the fear and anticipated consequences create an environment where it’s easier to not act and allow bad things to happen than it is to step in and do the right thing.

Interestingly, when it comes to seeing someone else under attack or hurt, most people won’t actually jump in to help which is the great concern around people actually acting like the good samaritan. Rather, most people believe someone else will jump in and so they don’t need to.

They come up with any number of justifications such as the below:

  • I’m not the best person to help (I’m not skilled, it’s not my job, someone else is better qualified)
  • If I help, I’d probably do more harm than good
  • If I help there could be all sorts of expectations placed on me in the future
  • My actions may be misinterpreted. Others might think I’m helping because I feel bad (ie am guilty) or want something in exchange for helping

Benefit vs punishment

Where we do have very clear views on whether to adhere to or break a rule, it is often the result of the way we perceive the benefits vs detriments. For example, ignoring rules or process to pursue an end of year bonus is far more enticing when the bonus is large and the consequences are trivial than if you’re chasing a few hundred dollars and risking a jail sentence.

For this reason, when you can’t rely on a social norm alone to encourage people, the only thing left is to impose a consequence or punishment big enough to counter the (perceived) benefit of breaking the rule.

This requires two things:

  1. The impact/pain of the punishment is significant enough
  2. The likelihood of being punished is real enough that it’s not just seen as an idle threat

When bad behaviour is rewarded

It sounds rather obvious but if bad behaviour that benefits an individual is rewarded, expecting people to do the right thing for a common good is a foolish hope. This is one of the biggest problems with end of year bonuses which are tied only to how a portfolio has performed financially. These situations effectively encourage people to make decisions were processes are bypassed and greater risks are taken to make the individual benefit at the expense of the collective.

When punishments are empty threats

If theres no punishment, the more times people are exposed to the same situation, the weaker the deterrent effect becomes as they become less and less likely to expect the punishment to be implemented. This means that in order to be effective in the future, a greater and greater severity would be required for people to consider the punishment in future decisions of whether or not to follow a rule.

When rules aren’t fair and transparent

If you want a recipe for disaster when it comes to implementing punishments, adopting George Orwell’s quote some are more equal than others is the way to do it. If you don’t make it clear when the rules would be applied and to whom, or there are double standards (which elicit a feeling of their being unfair), they lack the impact they need. For example, having a team of experts design a risk matrix only for the sales team to dismiss it and make decisions based on an individual’s gut instinct will mean over time the experts may start to put in less effort or the sales team may start taking greater risks.

How do you create a positive culture where rules are less frequently broken?

If rules are broken when the above occurs, then logically doing the opposite will help keep people following the rules!

The greatest advice, especially for leaders is to lead by example. If you want an open door policy, you need to have an open door yourself.

Secondly, if the benefit is motivating people to do the wrong thing, you might want to look at changing what it’s attached to. For example, if you want bonuses to be tied to doing the right thing rather than to just getting a certain monetary target, you need to change what the reward is attached to so that it might require demonstration of positive company values or showing that you’ve followed process.

Finally, if the problem is with lots of people breaking the rules then the first thing you need to do is identify who the leaders are that the rest are looking to when deciding to follow the norm. If you can change their behaviour, slowly you’ll see a trickle down effect until the norm has flipped to following rather than breaking the rules. The caveat to this is that those who led the rebellion are more likely to have done so of their own volition, driven by personal gain. As such, it’s quite likely that you’ll need to look first to the punishments or consequences applied where rules are not followed to ensure that there is sufficient incentive to motivate those people (and the larger group) to follow the rules.

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