Does Getting Promoted Alter Your Moral Compass?

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Now more than ever, we need leaders who are willing to speak out against unethical practices. But new research sheds light on why otherwise-ethical people often struggle to dissent against their organizations. Based on a survey of more than 11,000 employees as well as several lab studies, the authors found that holding a higher rank within a group causes people to identify more strongly with that group, in turn making them less likely to speak up about ethical issues. They go on to suggest three strategies for managers looking to mitigate this effect: build awareness in order to anticipate this phenomenon in yourself and others, proactively solicit input from lower-ranking employees, and establish high ethical standards from the get-go. Of course, there are certainly cases in which leaders are consciously acting unethically, out of self-interest or even self-preservation — but this research illustrates that it’s often more complicated than that. Rather, the psychology of rank can lead ethical leaders to make unethical choices, simply because their increased level of group identification blinds them to their group’s unethical practices.

Recent years have seen no shortage of leaders promising to make their companies a force for good in the world — and yet time and time again, we’ve seen executives fail to live up to their stated ideals. What has kept these leaders from actually speaking out against unethical practices when they arise in their own organizations?

To answer that question, I conducted a series of studies with my co-author, Cameron Anderson, at the University of California, Berkeley. We consistently found that holding a higher rank within a group strengthens people’s identification with that group, in turn blinding them to the group’s unethical practices. This means that even if leaders are otherwise highly ethical, the higher they rise within their own organizations, the less likely they are to speak out.

In our first study, we explored whether holding higher rank was associated with lower levels of speaking out against unethical practices for more than 11,000 employees in 22 U.S. government agencies. Survey respondents anonymously reported whether they had witnessed different types of unethical behavior in their organizations, as well as how they had responded to that behavior. We controlled for a host of other variables such as age, gender, and time working in the organization, and we found that with each step up in rank, the odds of speaking out decreased — to the point that senior executives were 64% less likely to dissent than employees in the lowest-ranking positions.

In our next study, we wanted to explore this phenomenon in a more controlled environment. To that end, we brought 47 six-person groups into the laboratory, and conducted a three-part experiment that aimed to replicate real-world opportunities for group members to speak out again unethical activity. First, the groups introduced themselves by sharing some basic personal information, communicating via a chat platform. They then filled out a leadership questionnaire, after which they were given copies of what they believed to be the other group members’ responses to the questionnaire (in reality, the materials were pre-scripted).

Next, the participants were assigned ranks, which they were told were based on their responses to the questionnaire (in fact, they were random): One third of participants were told that they would hold a high-ranking position in the group, one third were told they would hold a low-ranking position, and the remainder were not given any rank. The participants who were given ranks were told that high-ranking members would be responsible for making key decisions, overseeing the group’s performance, evaluating other group members, and determining whether each member should receive a bonus for their participation.

Once ranks were assigned, participants were asked to complete a survey that allowed us to measure their level of identification with the group. (The survey included questions like, “How much do you value being a member of this group?” and asked respondents to report how much they agreed with statements like, “This group’s successes are my successes.”) Finally, we set up a simple game in which groups were given the chance to tell a lie that would increase their own cash reward at the cost of another group. We showed participants chat messages that suggested their group mates were either in favor of lying or telling the truth, and then watched to see if they would dissent or go along with their group.

What did we find? Rank made a huge impact on participants’ likelihood to dissent. When the group wanted to lie, 39% of low-ranking participants and 38% of the participants who hadn’t been assigned a rank dissented — compared to only 14% of high-ranking participants. Conversely, when the group leaned toward telling the truth, 9% of low-ranking participants and 11% of non-ranked participants pushed for lying — compared to just 2% of those with high rank. This suggests that rank didn’t correlate with a preference for lying or truth telling — it simply correlated with a preference for going along with the group.

Why Dissenting is Harder for Leaders

This tendency for higher-ranking people to avoid dissenting may seem surprising. After all, leaders generally have less to fear by disagreeing, since they are the ones in charge of evaluating others. But the key factor at play is group identification. When people hold higher rank, they define themselves more in terms of their group membership, agreeing more strongly with statements such as, “I feel connected to this group” and “I value my membership in this group.” Even in a lab setting, in which rank was in fact assigned arbitrarily, being told that they held higher rank significantly strengthened participants’ level of identification with the group — which in turn made them much less likely to speak out against that group.

Of course, in general, a strong sense of identification is good for organizations. Identifying with the group can motivate people to contribute more, and can make them more willing to sacrifice for the good of the group. But our research shows that it can also lead people to dissent less against unethical behavior.

It’s also relevant to note here that while rank often correlates with group identification, our research suggests that it is the increased group identification specifically — not the high rank in and of itself — that reduces dissension. That means that other factors, such as length of time in the organization, or culture fit with the group, could similarly impact group identification, and thus could similarly cause people to dissent less.

In another study from the same paper, we similarly ranked participants but then intentionally nudged them to identify more or less strongly with their groups, artificially separating rank from group identification in order to observe their impact individually. We then told participants (who were asked to imagine that they represented a medical supply company) that their group wanted to price gouge after a hurricane, and asked them how ethical they felt their group’s decision was. We found that among those whose group identification was strong, high-ranking participants perceived the group’s decision to price gouge to be more ethical than low-ranking participants did — just as in the study described above. But when levels of identification were weak, participants perceived the decision similarly regardless of their rank in the group.

This suggests that in the absence of strong group identification, high rank doesn’t necessarily lead to a decrease in willingness to dissent. But in most real-world cases, high rank engenders significant identification with the group, which helps to explain why high-ranking people can often struggle to identify unethical practices within their organizations. These people aren’t inherently less ethical — but holding higher rank increases their sense of identification with the group, and that leads to more favorable impressions of the group’s practices. In other words, higher rank acts as a blinder, making unethical practices harder for these people to detect.

What Does this Mean for Executives?

Given these biases, what can executives and managers do to ensure that unethical behavior is identified and addressed? Below, we describe three key strategies for leaders looking to counteract the effect our research has identified and foster a positive, ethical work environment:

 1. Anticipate changes in your moral compass.

Leaders need to anticipate and plan for changes in their moral compass as they ascend the ranks. After a promotion, note whether you feel more connected to your workgroup and consider the potential costs along with the benefits. Identifying with your team is great, but are elements of your personal identity being crowded out? You might avoid ethical pitfalls by regularly triangulating your ethical views with other team members.

Similarly, when employees receive promotions, their managers can explicitly discuss these issues with them and prepare them for the potential ethical shifts they may experience. This not only helps to educate employees about this phenomenon, but also sends a clear message that managers are open to and even encouraging of dissent from their teams.

 2. Solicit dissent from low-ranking team members.

Low-ranking team members aren’t usually sought out for ethical advice, but our research suggests they should be. Leaders need input from people who might not otherwise have much influence and who are less invested in the organization — namely, those of lower rank and those who do not define themselves as much in terms of workgroup membership. Lower-ranking and weakly identified individuals often have valuable insights to offer regarding the (un)ethical nature of work practices, which more senior employees may struggle to notice. As such, establishing habits and explicit structures for soliciting dissent from low-ranking employees can help organizations maintain high ethical standards.

 3. Work to establish high ethical standards from the outset.

Our research shows that it can be difficult for leaders to dissent against unethical practices when those practices are deeply ingrained within their organizations. As such, one of the best ways to ensure ethical behavior is to establish clear ethical standards from the beginning. This way, as leaders become more and more identified with the group, their natural instinct to avoid dissent will lead them to follow the group’s ethical standards (whereas if a group is accustomed to unethical behavior, that same instinct will lead leaders to follow suit and behave unethically).

In other words, if an organization is already more ethical, then identifying more strongly with the organization will mean that you end up sharing its ethical values, and thus act more ethically yourself. Although a common joke suggests that “business ethics” is an oxymoron, in environments where people publicly support ethical practices, our research suggests that widespread deference to those principles — even when they come at a personal cost — becomes more common. But once shady practices become the norm, only a minority of high-ranking people will dissent against them.

Of course, one important caveat to all this is that while the unethical behaviors we observed weren’t calculated decisions, there are plenty of situations in which high-ranking people might consciously avoid calling out unethical behavior. In our studies, otherwise ethical, unbiased people experienced an unconscious change in their ethical views: The high-ranking people in our studies weren’t going along with a practice they perceived as wrong, but rather, their feelings about what course of action was “right” shifted when they were given a higher rank. But in other contexts, leaders may hesitate to dissent out of fear of being blamed, or even out of old-fashioned greed and self-interest. To address this, organizations must build incentive structures that balance accountability with support for whistleblowers, and which root out genuinely unethical behavior as swiftly as possible.

Sometimes leaders are genuinely unethical, caring more about profits than principles. Some leaders may even intentionally take advantage of their higher-ranking positions to advance and conceal unethical behavior for their own gain. But our research offers a more nuanced explanation for why otherwise ethical people might make ethically questionable decisions. Given the right circumstances, anyone’s moral compass can drift — and holding higher rank only makes it that much harder to stay on course.

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