MBA Ethics Education: Avoiding Excuses

This is the second in a series of blog postings on ethics education for MBA students.

We all want MBA students to leave school with a good chance of being able to do the right thing when the going gets tough. Sometimes, doing the right thing simply requires that we avoid the temptation to do the wrong thing. Positive role models are definitely a good thing, but we also need to understand why things sometimes go wrong.

We can gain insight into that by looking at why it is that people do bad things in the first place. The best short treatment of that topic that I know of, as it applies to Business Ethics, is a paper by my pal Joseph Heath.* Business seems to be, in Heath’s words, a “criminogenic” setting (i.e., a setting that seems to generate criminal behaviour, along with other forms of wrongdoing). If we want to improve ethical conduct in business, we need to understand what characteristics of the world of business are responsible for that pattern.

Heath points out that most of the “folk” theories of wrongdoing have long since been dispensed with by the experts who have spent the most time studying the topic, namely criminologists. Those folk theories hold that wrongdoing is caused 1) by defects of character, 2) by greed, or 3) by deviant values. But the available evidence just doesn’t support any of those explanations. That’s not to say that those things never play a role; it’s just to say that none of those 3 provides anything like a general explanation for wrongdoing. Instead, the existing criminological literature points to the fact that wrongdoers exhibit patterns of “neutralization” with regards to their crimes. That is, they describe their behaviour differently than an observer would. They define words differently, in order to attempt to rationalize their behaviour. In essence, what this allows them to do is to admit that they did the thing, without admitting that it was actually wrong.

The following are the “techniques of neutralization” that Heath gleans from the criminological literature:

  • Denial of responsibility — e.g., “I had no choice!”;
  • Denial of injury — e.g., “No one really got hurt anyway”;
  • Denial of the victim — e.g., “They just got what they deserved.”;
  • Condemning the condemners — e.g., “Those who accuse me are just out to get me.”;
  • Appeal to higher loyalties — e.g., “I have a family to support!”;
  • “Everyone else is doing it;”
  • Claim to entitlement — e.g., “I built this company, I can do what I want!”

The final section of Heath’s paper deals briefly with business ethics education. He argues that what we know about the genesis of wrongdoing has clear implications for what we teach in business ethics classes. The techniques of neutralization are psychologically attractive, but in most cases they are logically faulty. So we need to teach business students to recognize them, and to recognize why they are faulty. (I’ve got lots to say on how to do that, but I’ll leave it for another time.)

Even more important, perhaps, Heath nods to the role of managers as designers. (See also yesterday’s blog entry, “MBA Ethics Education: Designing the Designers”.) The fact that managers are involved in the design of the work environments they manage implies that they need to be taught how to incorporate an understanding of the significance of techniques of neutralization into their design choices. They need the tools with which to build work environments in which certain kinds of excuses, in other words, are psychologically unattractive and socially unacceptable.
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*See Joseph Heath’s “Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminological Perspective,” Journal of Business Ethics 83:4, 2008. Here’s the abstract.

9 comments so far

  1. Ethics Sage on

    Great piece. I would add to the “techniques of neutralization” a “don’t rock the boat” mentality that says “I don’t want to be viewed as not being a team player.”

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Steve:

      That seems plausible. Of course the 7 listed above are supported by the criminological literature, and I simply don’t know if the one you propose is there. I suppose wanting to be a team player might fall under the heading of “appeal to higher values”.

      Chris

  2. […] This is the third in a series of blog entries on ethics education for MBA students (the first two are here and here). […]

  3. […] Second, you need to be motivated — you need to care, and you need the courage to act in the face of the pressures of hierarchy and teamwork. You need some understanding of just what your obligations really are. (Among other things, this requires a refusal to indulge in self-serving excuses.) […]

  4. […] Sometimes, as I’ve blogged before, people do bad things because they allow themselves to use invalid excuses. It’s likely that some people know (in their heart of hearts) that they’re using lame […]

  5. […] MBA Ethics Education: Avoiding Excuses (…Sometimes, doing the right thing simply requires that we avoid the temptation to do the wrong thing. Positive role models are definitely a good thing, but we also need to understand why things sometimes go wrong…) […]

  6. […] particular, setting the right tone means avoiding – in both words and deeds – excuses and rationalizations. Rationalizations (“I had no choice;” “No one was really hurt;” “It’s not my job;” […]

  7. […] as Magee suggests, a course in ethics can help students understand the dangers of rationalization. A lot of bad behaviour goes on because good people tell themselves that such behaviour is not, in […]

  8. […] can help students understand the dangers of rationalization. A lot of bad behaviour goes on because good people tell themselves that such behaviour is not, in […]


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