Recently, I performed a little ‘experiment’ in my undergraduate management ethics class. It was the end of the semester and I thought I would try to get the students a bit more energized on the final day of class by offering them a chance to add points onto their final exam grade.
The idea came from a scholarly article, Teaching the Prisoner’s Dilemma More Effectively: Engaging the Students, by two professors of economics at the University of North Texas, Michael. A. McPherson and Michael L. Nieswiadomy. While the article was intended to outline a model for teaching behavioral economics, my interest in and use of this experiment was instead to teach behavioral ethics.
The following information was provided to the students, and modified slightly, as noted:
This survey is part of a simple economic experiment. There is no obligation to participate, and no cost to you if you decide not to. The potential benefit is real: extra points added to your final grade. There is no risk to you, and all information gathered will be kept strictly confidential.
– Do not talk with each other during the experiment.
– Do not look at anyone else’s paper nor allow them to look at yours.
Your answers will never be revealed to anyone else, including other students in this class.
The following is a simple situation. Please read carefully then select either the number 2 or the number 8:
– If everyone writes 2, all students get 2 points added to their second midterm grade.
– If only one students write an 8, both of them get 8 points and everyone else gets 0 points.
– If more than one student write[s] an 8, everyone in the class gets 0 points.
To my surprise, one student wrote down an 8– and then volunteered that he was the person who wrote down the 8, during the class debrief. The other students in the class were outwardly angry (one girl threatened to silly string the student’s car), and even in the face of his peer’s obvious anger and resentment, the student remained resolute that he had chosen ‘the correct answer,’ as this was not a question of ethics– but rather a ‘numbers game.’
Throughout the class discussion, and even during my one-on-one conversation with him following the class, he remained steadfast that this was not a question of ethics. Now, his response may not be that curious if this were indeed used in an economics class, but I was really amazed by his response given that this was the final day of a management ethics class!
This situation made me realize that we need to gain a better understanding of how well intentioned people come to make unethical decisions.We have see the results of unethical decision making in the media for more than the past decade of highly publicized scandals such as Enron, Tyco and more recently Madoff. But, what I believe is more interesting, is to gain a better understanding of smaller scale decisions that arise from a lack of attention to the ethical implications of a decision, which may be overshadowed by a focus on numbers, targets, and pressure to meet or exceed expectations.
I recently wrote a post about switching from a task focused to emotionally/socially focused leadership perspective. The same neurological constraints may be at play with ethical decision making. If you are focused on being analytical, you may be suppressing your ability to be empathetic, i.e. how will this decision impact my peers, customers, etc. This is exactly what we saw with the student who wrote down an 8—he never considered the impact of his decision on anyone but himself!
One key to ethical decision making is something that I realized during the course of my doctoral studies. Given the task of providing an ethical analysis of my own research, I came to understand that everything is an ethical question. Before you jump to conclusions, what I mean by that is that you must be aware of ethical implications of every decision that you make—and sometimes these are not obvious.
A simple question that I give my students to think about when making a decision is whether would you want your closest friends and family to know the decision that you made.(How about your grandmother?) Really, this is a ‘gut check.’ Does it feel right? Maybe your ‘gut’ is off, so it helps to think of how someone you care about would feel about your decision. When we look at things from someone else’s perspective, even though it may not be obvious within our myopic view, a new understanding can come to light.
Joann Farrell Quinn, PhD is a consultant, educator and speaker focused on leadership and interpersonal relationships within an organizational setting.