Does Accusing a Coworker of an Ethical Lapse Hurt Your Credibility?

Does Accusing a Coworker of an Ethical Lapse Hurt Your Credibility?

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While leveling an accusation can sometimes lead to retaliation against the accuser, new research shows that it can also benefit the accuser in two key ways: Making accusations can reduce trust in the target, and boost trust in the accuser — regardless of the evidence (or lack thereof). The authors conducted a series of experiments looking at a number of different scenarios, and consistently found that perceptions of trustworthiness increased after an accusation was made. Importantly, these findings do come with the caveat that personal biases can eliminate or even reverse these effects: If you’re biased against the accuser, you’re less likely to start trusting them just because they’ve leveled an accusation against someone. But unless you’ve got strong preconceptions that color your judgement, simply witnessing an accusation can significantly increase your trust in the accuser. Based on this research, the authors share three strategies to help managers handle accusations in the workplace, including building awareness, balancing skepticism with curiosity and open-mindedness, and mitigating the cultural impact of accusations on the organization.

It’s well-known that accusing someone of unethical behavior — whether that accusation is founded or unfounded — can lead to retaliation against the accuser. Our recent research, however, suggests that in addition to this potential for negative fallout, leveling an accusation (even one with tenuous basis in reality) can also benefit the accuser in two ways: 1) even baseless accusations can plant seeds of doubt, reducing trust in the target, and 2) making accusations can signal that the accuser has high integrity, and thus boost trust in the accuser.

To explore how accusations impact people’s perceptions of both the target and the accuser, we conducted a series of experiments with over 1,500 participants, including working adults and university students.

We began our investigation by focusing on the impact of making accusations that were true. We put participants into four-person groups — in which two group members were actually research assistants — and asked them to solve math and word problems. Each person worked independently, and we told them that we would compensate them proportionally to the total number of problems the group solved. At the end of the session, we told the groups that one of the four members (who was actually a research assistant) had been assigned to be the group spokesperson. The spokesperson confirmed the total number of problems that had been completed with their group, but then over-reported the group’s performance when the experimenter arrived (meaning that everyone in the group would earn more money than they should have).

Then, in half of the trials, a second member of the group (who was also a research assistant) called out the spokesperson with an accusation of dishonesty: “You know those amounts were too high. That’s pretty unethical.” In the other half of the trials, the second research assistant did not speak up. We then had the participants report their level of trust in all of the group members.

So what did we find? First, participants trusted our second research assistant more in the cases where the assistant made an accusation (even though that accusation put everyone’s higher payment at risk). In addition, despite the fact that in both sets of trials, the participants knew that the spokesperson had lied, participants who witnessed the second research assistant level an accusation trusted the spokesperson significantly less than those who were in groups where no accusation was made. The accusation provided no new information — participants in both cases knew exactly what the spokesperson had done — and yet their trust in the spokesperson was significantly lower when they were publicly accused of lying.

In another study, we examined the impact of making false accusations. First, we asked 600 working adults to read about a situation in which an executive at a chemical company presented solutions to environmental issues associated with their business. In the first condition, participants were told that a second executive accused the presenter of unethical behavior, stating: “Your solutions are not ethical.” In the second condition, participants were told that the second executive simply said, “I have no questions or comments.”

Without knowing whether the proposed solutions were in fact unethical, participants were asked to rate how much they trusted the second executive. Once again, we found that trust was greater when the executive made an accusation than when they did not, even though they had no way of knowing whether the presenter had actually proposed anything unethical.

In the next part of the study, we revealed additional information that made it clear whether the accusation was true or false: In half of the cases, we revealed that the presenter had proposed an unethical solution (selling a toxic product in developing countries with weaker environmental regulations). In the other half of the cases, we revealed that the presenter had proposed only ethical solutions, and that the accusation was false. We then had participants rate their trust in the accuser a second time.

Unsurprisingly, when participants were told that the presenter had proposed unethical solutions, their trust in the second executive was greater in the cases where he made the accusation, than in the cases where he stayed silent. More surprisingly, when participants were told that the presenter had only proposed ethical solutions, they still trusted the second executive just as much whether he made a false accusation or said nothing. Even if the accusation was shown to be completely false, trust in the accuser did not decrease.

Finally, since it’s possible that depending on their preconceived assumptions, some participants could be biased to assume chemical companies would act unethically, we repeated this experiment with a variety of similar setups using other industries and scenarios, and consistently found the same effect: Even clear contrary evidence did not negatively impact people’s trust in the accusers.

Why Accusers Benefit

Why does this happen? Past research has shown that integrity is a fundamental driver of how we perceive others, and is often valued even more highly than factors such as sociability and competence. But accurately assessing someone’s integrity is no easy feat, especially in the absence of lived experience with that person. Because of this, we often look for shortcuts that can help us guess how trustworthy someone is — and our research suggests that for many people, making accusations can serve as a signal of trustworthiness (regardless of whether or not those accusations are true).

In fact, leveling accusations appears to be an even stronger subconscious indicator of integrity than simply making clear, ethical statements — perhaps because making an accusation is a confrontational act, and thus has more potential downside for the accuser than just stating an ethical stance. In a related study from the same series of experiments, we compared the impact of making accusations to that of making moral statements (such as asserting that “no solution that we pursue should be unethical”). We found that making moral statements did boost perceptions of integrity — but not nearly as much as direct accusations that someone was engaging in unethical behavior.

Do Accusers Ever Lose?

Across our experiments, making an accusation never lowered people’s trust in the accuser, but there were two cases in which leveling an accusation failed to increase trust in the accuser. The first was when the accusation was clearly false, as discussed above. The second was when the accuser was clearly acting hypocritically: If there was evidence that the accuser had engaged in a similar ethical transgression as the one they were accusing someone else of engaging in, the accusation did not boost perceptions of their integrity (although notably, even in these cases, making the hypocritical accusation still did not decrease their perceived trustworthiness — it simply didn’t make a difference).

That said, there are certainly cases where making accusations can backfire or lead to retaliation. Accusers may lose credibility if they have very transparent ulterior motives, such as when someone accuses a competitor in a manner that could benefit themselves. Similarly, if the person who hears the accusation has strong preconceptions about the issue — such as when accusations are leveled against a friend or political ally, or when the accuser is someone they have some personal bias against — they may be more motivated to discredit that accusation. Importantly, these biases against the accuser can be “legitimate”; that is, stemming from personal experience or a known track record, but they can also be completely irrational, stemming from factors such as political affiliation, race, or gender.

What Does This Mean for Managers?

So how can these findings be applied in the workplace? Below, we describe three key ways that managers can leverage the psychology of accusations to better support their teams and foster a more positive work culture.

1. Build awareness — in both yourself and your team — about the power of accusations.

Too often, we make judgements about other people without explicitly recognizing what is driving those perceptions. Our research identifies accusations as a particularly powerful force in forming impressions — regardless of whether those accusations are based in truth. To combat this potential bias, managers should recognize the power of making accusations, and consciously endeavor to limit the impact of those accusations on their assessments of employee integrity. Similarly, managers should educate their teams about this effect, so that all employees will be more able to overcome this natural psychological tendency and make more objective judgements about their colleagues’ trustworthiness.

2. Balance skepticism with curiosity.

Of course, our research should not be misinterpreted to suggest that accusations are always false, or that those who level them should not in fact be trusted. Despite the sometimes unhelpful role accusations can play in engendering positive impressions of accusers, managers should recognize that accusations can still serve several important functions in an organization.

First, leveling accusations can be an effective tool to hold people accountable for genuinely unethical behavior. For example, few would dispute the critical role Tyler Schultz played by blowing the whistle on Theranos’s fraudulent blood test technology. Cases such as that of Theranos highlight the importance of building a culture in which employees feel comfortable speaking out.

Second, when people see that accusations are taken seriously, it sends the message that unethical behavior will be costly. As a result, accusations can help communicate clear ethical standards for everyone, thus reducing the potential for unethical activity in the first place.

Third, accusations can provide managers with useful information, both about the potentially problematic behavior that’s the subject of the accusation, and about the accuser’s integrity. While simply making an accusation shouldn’t be used as a stand-in for trustworthiness, if managers determine that an employee has made a truthful accusation, that could suggest that they might be a good candidate for additional responsibility or leadership positions (in which integrity is essential).

While a greater understanding of the psychological impact of leveling accusations can be quite valuable, that should by no means imply that managers should discourage employees from making accusations when necessary. Instead, they should simply be careful to judge accusers as objectively as possible, and not let those accusations color their impressions of the employee’s integrity (for better or for worse).

3. Mitigate the negative organizational impact of leveling accusations.

Even when accusations are well-founded, they have the potential to harm an organization’s culture. Across our studies, we found that participants perceived accusations as a signal of conflict, and research has shown that interpersonal conflict can be highly destructive for group performance and culture. When people perceive that there is conflict within a group, it can lead them to value their inclusion in that group less, meaning that a culture of frequent accusations can lead employees to feel less invested in their organizations (even if they aren’t personally involved in the accusation).

 To address this, managers should be proactive about ensuring uninvolved team members retain a strong sense of group identity after witnessing a conflict between colleagues. This includes publicly (and privately) treating both the accuser and the target with respect, inviting employees to communicate any concerns, and being transparent about both the accusation and any actions being taken to address it.

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Our research shows that in many cases, leveling an accusation can increase people’s trust in the accuser. This means that there is real potential for individuals to use accusations — whether true or not — to advance their own interests.

In particular, recent events at the U.S. Capitol underscore the harm that unfounded accusations can cause. Following the 2020 presidential election, President Trump repeatedly made accusations of election fraud. Despite a complete lack of evidence and a string of failed lawsuits, our research suggests that especially for those who were already politically aligned with Trump, the simple act of leveling these accusations (regardless of any basis in reality) likely increased trust in the former president. Trump’s supporters explicitly cited his accusations as the rationale behind their attempt to storm the Capitol, demonstrating that their trust in Trump had become so unshakeable that they were willing both to ignore the mounting evidence countering his claims, and to risk their own well-being in his defense.

Conversely, the effects described in our research also have implications for how we perceive accusations that are grounded in evidence. For example, we saw during the #MeToo movement that the extent to which people believed accusations of sexual assault depended heavily on their political beliefs and gender biases. This was true both for people’s immediate reactions to these accusations, as well as after compelling evidence emerged. In many of these cases, the effect our research identified — that accusations increase people’s trust in the accuser — was negated by people’s significant biases against these accusers.

Of course, we all have a variety of biases that can color how we perceive different kinds of accusations. To some extent, this is unavoidable — but we can begin to overcome this effect by building self-awareness about our own preconceptions, and by proactively seeking out evidence before judging the veracity of an accusation. Our findings demonstrate that accusations can powerfully shape our perceptions of both the target and the accuser, regardless of the facts. As such, we should all attempt first to recognize this pervasive bias, and then to do our best to keep accusations from influencing our perception of accusers’ integrity. The health of our relationships, our organizations, and even our democracy depends on it.

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