I’m giving ethics seminars to lawyers and accountants today at a non-profit conference in Washington, D.C. While I’m gone, I thought you might want to think about one of the topics I’ll be talking about, the problem of avoiding unethical influences and being co-opted by an unethical culture. What follows are some of the principles advocated by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, “Dr. Z” to his students, who is best known for devising the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (it was even made into a movie), that demonstrated to a frightening degree how ethical individuals could engage in horrendous acts when placed in the right (or wrong) environment. Zimbardo has studied, taught and written about this phenomenon extensively, and I find his advice bracing and wise, as well as fodder for debate and discussion. Here it is:
- Do not fall for the rationalization of “personal invulnerability.” If it can happen to them, then it can happen to you, too. Perceive yourself as vulnerable and try to make choices that don’t court temptation or require unusual virtue.
- Engage in life as fully as possible, yet be aware, attentive, and prepared to change direction.
- Trust, but not too much. Most people are good and trustworthy, but manipulators seem good and trustworthy, too. That’s what they’re good at.
- Be aware of the roots of compliance and persuasion: reciprocity, commitment, majority conduct, authority, liking, and perceived scarcity/need. Know why you are being persuaded.
- Be willing to say “I was wrong,” “I made a mistake,” and “I’ve changed my mind.” Don’t fear honesty, or to accept the consequences of what is already done.
- Separate your ego from your actions; maintain a sense of positive self-esteem that is independent of the occasional failure and stupidity.
- Separate the messenger from message in your mind.
- Beware of mental fatigue and half-baked decisions.
- Insist on a second opinion, and delay when under pressure.
- Train your mental and intuitive systems to sense when something isn’t right before you know what or why.
- Play devil’s advocate when being persuaded.
- Avoid situations where you lose contact with your social support and informational networks, for the most powerful forces of social influence thrive then. You do not want all your reinforcers to come from these new sources.
- Never allow yourself to be cut off emotionally from your familiar and trusted reference groups of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers – do not accept putdowns against them.
- Remember that all ideologies are just words, abstractions used for particular political, social, economic purposes; be wary taking actions proposed as necessary to sustain that ideology – always question if the means justify the ends, and suggest alternatives.
- Think hard before putting abstract principles before real people in following the advice of others.
- Trust your intuition and gut feelings when you sense you are becoming a target of influence, put up your counter-arguing mentality, and dig down for sources for resistance.
- Rules are abstractions for controlling behavior and eliciting compliance and conformity – challenge them when necessary. Ask: Who made the rule? What purpose does it serve? Who maintains it? Does it make sense in this specific situation? What happens if you violate it? Insist that the rule be made explicit, so it cannot be modified and altered over time to suit the influence agent.
4 thoughts on “Dr. Z’s Tips to Avoid Unethical Influences in the Workplace and in Life”
A lot of good advice there, Jack. Too bad he wasn’t around in the days of the Weimar Republic! But maybe it’s just as well he’s around now.
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Most of the advice in this blog require a lot of skill, practice and awareness. People are forever being taken advantage of (often the same person repeatedly) and change their view of the situation so that it seems as though they are complicit.
Very interesting advice, but very difficult for the people who need it to take it on board.
True enough. This is difficult for everyone. Being ethical is tough for everyone.
Practice, practice, practice.