Culture Is Not Created By What You Preach, But What You Tolerate

Having high-performing individuals on the team sounds like nirvana. Yet, it is not enough. High-performance without trust leads to toxicity. I may rely on your technical competence, but if I don’t trust your character, I won’t risk being vulnerable in front of you. I won’t be willing to open, and I won’t share. We will never be a team. Only if you are trustworthy, you have the right character, and you are competent at your job can we build a truly high-performing team.

Even the US Navy SEALs prioritize trust over performance. These are some of the world’s highest-performing teams, and yet they rather have a bit lower performer of high trust than a high performer of low trust. And these are the teams where the technical competence and skill of the members decide between life and death.

Performance is easy to measure, trust isn’t, at least not using some simple metrics. The way to measure low trust is to ask the team to identify the person they don’t want to work with, the jerk, and chances are good they will all point to the same person. Similarly, if you ask the team who they would go for advice and help, who they can rely on, and who is always there for others, they will point to a person of high trust. These are often natural, even though informal, leaders who work hard to advance the just cause without getting much recognition for it.

Ethical fading

In The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek talks about ethical fading. It is a condition that tolerates people acting unethically to advance their interests while believing they act morally and according to their principles. Unfortunately, ethical fading leads to a toxic culture. And it starts with minor transgressions that people gloss over without addressing them.

Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick studied how ethical fading gets created and how people or organizations can engage in it without realizing they do something unethical. One of the ways we deceive ourselves is to use euphemisms to label our actions as less problematic. We don’t torture people; we use enhanced interrogation. We don’t fire people; we right-size the organization. We don’t get people addicted to our products; we use gamification to enhance user experience. As Tenbrunsel and Messick note, if a company says it reports its earnings on a pro-forma basis, it sounds better than saying we made up our own accounting rules. Nothing wrong with these things, right? They certainly don’t have the same emotional impact. They remove any feeling of responsibility for the lives of others we may negatively impact. Euphemisms and metaphors can simplify the explanation of complex topics. Still, they can also hide the moral and ethical implications of our decisions and actions.

With each tolerated ethical violation, we normalize it and invite more unethical behavior in the future. People have no incentive to act ethically if they see that others don’t do it either, get away with it, and even benefit from it. Why shouldn’t you behave unethically if everyone else is already doing it?

The next self-deception that causes ethical fading is what Tenbrunsel and Messick call errors in perceptual causation. It is the misunderstanding of cause and effect that can put us on a slippery slope. For example, by assuming employees are untrustworthy, you introduce monitoring systems to fight it. The outcome is that employees who are monitored feel that you don’t trust them and therefore feel less need to be trustworthy and are more likely to act unethically. We often erroneously believe that we can’t fix a systemic problem. It is not the system we created but other people who are to blame.

The last problem with our self-deception is that we don’t see ourselves the same way others see us and vice versa. We each have our view of the world, and we mistakenly believe that there is only one world and one truth. If someone doesn’t see things our way, they are delusional and don’t see the world as it is. This means that we can’t accurately evaluate the impact of our actions and decisions on others. However, we can reason out explanations that make us feel good.

Ethical fading in the US Army

Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras of the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College published a report on dishonesty in the army profession. As it turns out, many Army officers, after being repeatedly exposed to unrealistic demands, learn to take shortcuts and become ethically numb. It creates a culture of dishonesty.

When the officers get overwhelmed with such a number of requirements that it is literally impossible to execute them all to the expected standards, they have two choices. Either they admit that they can’t get compliant with them all, or they cheat. And since non-compliance is usually not an option, then what is left is taking shortcuts and cheating. This leads to a situation where it is more important to report that you are up to an expected standard rather than being at the expected standard.

In 2002, the US Army War College counted all the training expected of the company commanders and compared it to the number of available days. Incredibly, the company commanders were expected to fit 297 days of mandatory training to only 256 available days. No one up to that point realized the task’s impossibility as the reports suggested it was being done. Admitting non-compliance is not an option in the army. So the officers don’t have a choice but to lie. Simultaneously, the military professionals are proud of their self-image of honesty, integrity, loyalty, honor, respect, duty, and personal courage. It means that they don’t see themselves as lying. They are simply doing what is necessary to deal with the bureaucracy to do their job and protect the country.

Even though no one would ever ask another person in the army to say something that wasn’t true, in reality, everyone understands that it is happening as there is no choice. It is hidden behind statements like “You find ways to get things done and assume risks,” “you gotta make priorities, we met the intent, or we got creative,” “it is just checking a box.” All these means that you are cutting corners, and you feel it is OK, as the requirements are unrealistic or dumb in the first place.

The interesting thing is that everyone in the chain of command understands that this is happening. Senior officers know that the reports they are getting are inaccurate, and the data, therefore, isn’t valued. This is a peculiar state where both sides, those who produce the reports and those who consume them, know that data is not accurate. And yet, the system keeps going on, and more reports that everyone knows will be meaningless are being required.

Once you create this sort of dishonesty in the organization, it will become a norm and spread to more important things than just some compliance reports. People will then cheat with requisitions for supplies, accounting, or mission reports. For example, one officer stated that “The cost of investigating a lost widget isn’t worth the cost of the item; they write it off and later say it was lost to the Pakistanis.” Another one noted that “We were required to inspect 150 polling sites in Iraq, which nobody could possibly ever do, and fill out an elaborate spreadsheet. The spreadsheet was to get validation for higher-ups that you did what they told you to. We gave them what they wanted.” And another one, “Every contact with the enemy required a storyboard report. People did not report enemy contact because they knew the storyboard was useless, and they didn’t want to go through the hassle.”

This level of dishonesty, white lies, and innocent mistruths are so pervasive that it doesn’t cause any ethical angst. It is not seen as an ethical issue but as a practical one. Inability to recognize the moral and ethical component then leads to ethical fading. Ethical fading means that considering whether something is right or wrong doesn’t apply to this particular situation. There is nothing unethical about it. You just want to get the job done.

To help you avoid being burdened by ethical dilemmas, you use euphemisms and phrases that will obscure unethical behavior. You are just “checking the box” or “giving them what they want.”

Distance also helps. It is not easy to tell a lie to someone’s face, but it is easier to just check a box in a report that gets sent to who knows who. If it can be done electronically without a need for a physical signature, even better. And since you know that everyone knows the data are not real anyway, you know that there won’t be any repercussions if you lie. The opposite will probably be true. If all the other officers report that they are 100% compliant with the requirements, while you are the only one who writes the truth and says you are only 85% compliant, you get singled out and reprimanded for your low performance.

Wong and Gerras found out that from all the excuses and justifications the officers use, like focus on the mission, taking care of others, doing it for the greater good, the most frequently quoted is the rationalization that dishonesty is necessary because the task is unreasonable or dumb. When people don’t see a point in doing what you ask them to do and see it only as an obstacle to their real jobs, they will feel completely justified to be dishonest. Being unethical in such a situation is seen as restoring a sense of balance with the insane and stupid requests. Rationalizing is helping you to keep the self-image of an honest person despite acting dishonestly.

How to prevent ethical fading

You don’t fight this level of ethical fading with ethics training. You need to look at your policies and procedures and rethink the number of requirements you have on your teams. You need to exercise restraint in the number of tasks, reports, and expectations you have. It has to be doable. It means you need to prioritize and be crystal clear on what things don’t need to be done and what things are genuinely required. You need to abolish the mutually agreed deception and lead with integrity. It may require you to stand up to the higher-ups when they set unrealistic goals. It may require you to accept good enough work and not require excellence in everything. It may require you to trust your team and don’t require heaps of reports on everything they do. It may require you to embrace those who tell you the honest truth rather than label them malcontents who don’t fit the team.

The best way to deal with ethical fading is to create an environment of trust. People don’t do work just to check a box in some form, but because it is the right thing to do. They care about the mission, and acting ethically is a natural thing to do. People do what is right because they want to elevate the mission and not damage it by unethical practices.

You need to educate yourself and others on the causes of self-deception. More importantly, you need to identify cues and triggers that lead to unethical behavior and fix them. It is often the systems, processes, and policies that encourage unethical behavior without being apparent in the first place. For example, what criteria do you use for hiring or promoting people? What systems do you use for measuring performance? Who gets rewarded for what behavior? What is being tolerated and what not? Fix the faulty processes, and you are much more likely to build an ethical organization.

Stop solving your people’s problems by creating more and more processes, policies, and reports. Focus on providing leadership and support instead. When there is a problem with absenteeism, performance, or ethics, people who exhibit problematic behavior processes are required to fill in timesheets, document performance issues in a form. What’s worse, everyone is required to do it. It often creates an environment where people are not incentivized to act ethically. A better way is to coach the person who needs it to understand what needs to be done and why. Leadership takes effort. In lousy leadership, you delegate that effort to human resources and legal departments. When you abdicate your leadership responsibility, you may end up with a myriad of policies and processes that no one understands and follows. You have a false sense of security that people know how to act while they keep ignoring the policies or finding shortcuts through them so they can focus on their actual jobs. The foundations of the unethical culture are laid.

What is your take on the topic? How do you define culture? How do you see an organization that tolerates bad behavior? Would you rather others address directly your behavior they may find offending or pretend that they are fine? Is discipline important? Is it important to address even the small infringements against the agreed norms?

Photo: 905513 /

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Categories: Leadership

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