The behaviouralist dog and its accounting tail

Every now and then, you read something that necessitates a response. To its credit as a brand, the Harvard Business Review often publishes the things to which I feel I need to respond; although I’m not sure it is an unabashed compliment. As to why so many of those things relate to HBR’s articles on ethics, I’ll leave the reader to judge.

This time, it is an online article by HBS associate professor, Eugene Soltes. I’d not heard of Dr Soltes nor have I, to my knowledge, previously read anything he has written. But the article, titled “Why It’s So Hard to Train Someone to Make an Ethical Decision” will not make me rush to do so again; quite the contrary.

Business ethics is not a simple matter, or so Soltes would have us believe. I suspect he is right, but certainly not for the reasons suggested in his article. Summarising (admittedly, crudely) his argument, he suggests it is more difficult in real, live business situations to behave ethically than it is to make judgments in the classroom about business decisions involving an ethical element. Soltes lists three principal reasons:

  1. the decision-maker does not identify the decision as having an ethical element;
  2. in training exercises, discussion and debate raises “different points of view and judgments” that inform the decision-maker; and
  3. while, in training, a decision is considered slowly, in real life, decisions with ethical elements take place “quickly and rely on intuition rather than careful, reflective reasoning.”

Apart from the point that some ethicists, including Jonathan Haidt, view intuition as central to ethical decision-making in most or all circumstances (bolstered subsequently by a kind of post hoc‘ethical sense-making’), the rest of the article simply doesn’t stack up.

Intentionally or otherwise, Soltes gives three recent and famous ‘perps’ a neutral hearing: Sam Waksal, CEO of Imclone Systems (subsequently convicted of securities offences around insider trading), Rajat Gupta, MD of McKinsey and Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco. To assert, as Soltes does, that these experienced executives made unethical decisions while seemingly unaware that their actions were unacceptable, unethical and illegal defies credulity. There is a simpler explanation: they knew fully and consciously what they were doing and did it anyway in the expectation of benefit or for egotistical reasons.

Instead, Soltes cites research by eminent (Harvard) psychologist Ellen Langer in which she describes ‘mindlessness’, the flip-side of her better known ‘mindfulness’. Soltes describes an experiment in which

“Langer and her colleagues sent a trivial, nonsensical memo around an office, formatting it in the usual manner, whose only content was a command to return it (“This memo is to be returned to Room 247”). Although the rational response would be to dispose of the ridiculous memo, 90% returned it.”

I am unclear how this relates to any ethical violation. “So what?” is my overwhelming response to the example (much as I am a huge fan of Langer’s work, especially relating to ‘illusion of control’). Soltes continues:

“When there’s precious little time to deeply reflect on decisions, we rely on routines and the surrounding norms to dictate behaviour.”

He cites the case of unauthorised cross-selling at Wells Fargo. To suggest that people deliberately mis-selling were unaware that their behaviour was unethical is a nonsense; they knew it, yet cross-sold without authority anyway in full knowledge that it was not in customers’ interests. Clearly, this is not mindlessness; it is more akin to ‘normalization of deviance’, as described so well by Diane Vaughan in relation to the loss of the Challenger space shuttle.

Yet it was not normalisation of deviance that led to the actions of the senior executives to whom Soltes refers earlier in his article – Waksal, Gupta and Kozlowski; rather it is simple, knowing criminality and post hoc justification; it is patently and knowingly unethical. That Soltes does not see this smacks of Stockholm Syndrome – he seems to be have become too close to his kidnappers (in this case, subjects of his academic attention).

If that were the extent of it, I would not be overly bothered. But Soltes’ article, reproduced electronically by HBR, is simply sloppy social science: Soltes has forgotten the admonition of Carl Sagan (a pure scientist, himself) to skepticism, surely as important in social science as it is in pure science. Soltes’ PhD (from Chicago) is in Accounting; perhaps accountants without other, relevant training should not be encouraged to stray in to social science as they seem so fond of doing. It usually doesn’t end well.

Ethics and ethical standards in business are (two, separate) important issues. Real ethical dilemmas are, almost by definition, just that: dilemmas, trade-offs of interests. We struggle with them instinctively, as Haidt points out. Addressing meaningfully ethics in business, a critical application of ethical faculties, is neither helped nor informed by lazy academic practice and flawed, casual explanations by supposedly careful academics. That is not why we have academics; nor is how institutions such as Harvard have earned and maintained their prestige over time. Not for the first time, their business school’s pursuit of popular attention dilutes their message and their utility. There is a salutary lesson here for us all and it’s not about ethics, at least not of the kind Soltes’ article discusses.


One thought on “The behaviouralist dog and its accounting tail

  1. Peter,

    As you know, I have long stated (my own) axiom that “Ethical standards only apply to ethical people”. You have hit the nail on the head, unethical people made decisions that they knew were unethical and criminal, and have attempted to justify such behaviours. What is missing from the discussion is the “Fraud triangle” and the need for certain factors to be present to enable fraud (or other criminal activity).

    When a governance forum asked the question “How do we fix cultures to stop Wells Fargo type cultures?”, there was stream of comments. After 14 or 15 comments I felt compelled to ask the simple question “When is someone going to say ‘jail time’?”

    I do not argue that the prospect of jail would have stopped these three, clearly it did not. But the demonstrably weak prosecution of “white collar” crime and the continual acceptance that companies can pay their way out of criminal activity by employees (at all levels) reinforces the rewards, and reduces the perception that jail actually is a potential outcome of chosen behaviours.

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