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We Aren’t as Ethical as We Think We Are, Research Says

March 17, 2010 — Ever since Enron, it seems more academics have been trying to understand and rectify unethical behavior. Research in a forthcoming paper might help organizations better understand thinking patterns in the workplace.

“The Ethical Mirage: A Temporal Explanation as to Why We Aren’t as Ethical as We Think We Are”, which will be published later this year in Research in Organizational Behavior, examines the psychological processes of individuals and how they deceive themselves into thinking they are ethical people.

“Companies typically don’t do bad things because they have bad people,” said Kristina A. Diekmann, Ph.D., University of Utah professor of management and one of the four authors of the paper. “When people imagine or predict what they would do in certain situations,” she explained, “they think about what they should do, however, when it comes to actually making decisions, people tend to focus on what they want to do.”

For example, individuals know they should behave ethically when negotiating with a client, but during the actual negotiation with that client, their desire to close a deal may cause them to make misleading statements and later justify doing so to others.

“They are not conditioned to think of the ethical consequences at the time of the decision,” Diekmann said. “What is particularly problematic is that when people deceive themselves into thinking they are ethical but don’t act accordingly, it encourages the continuation of negative behavior.”

Efforts have focused on how to correct organizations through formal systems, such as ethics codes and training, however little or no attention has been paid to the individual faced with the ethical dilemma. “The Ethical Mirage” focuses on individual perceptions and produces recommendations on how to change unethical behavior within organizations.

Organizations can do a number of things to help break the cycle of unethical behavior, such as putting certain procedures in place to reduce the likelihood that even the most ethical people won’t do bad things. Diekmann’s current work focuses on delineating specific recommendations for such policies and procedures.

The paper’s other co-authors include Ann E. Tenbrunsel of the University of Notre Dame, Kimberly A. Wade-Benzoni of Duke University and Max H. Bazerman of Harvard Business School.

About Kristina A. Diekmann

Professor Diekmann is a professor of management in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. Her research investigates how individuals behave in organizations, with a focus on negotiation, ethics and fairness, social perception, and impression management.

About David Eccles School of Business

Founded in 1917 in Salt Lake City, the David Eccles School of Business has programs in entrepreneurship, technology innovation and venture capital management. With emphasis on interdisciplinary education and experiential learning, it launched the country’s largest student-run venture capital fund with $18.3 million, and the Association of University Technology Officers ranks the school first in the country in taking university-generated technology to market. Some 3,500 students are enrolled in its undergraduate, graduate and executive degree programs as well as joint MBA programs in architecture, law and health administration. For more information, visit