October 2015

ethics word cloud on digital tabletNormalizing Bad Behavior – Part II

The second installment of this post can also be called The Fallacy of The Shortcut. It begins when the first person in the chain decides to rationalize a bad decision. For example, work schedules at all levels of an organization all have one thing in common. The lack of time, and this chronic lack of time, whether perceived or real creates stress. When you add changing conditions and events that compress the time available, people begin to look for alternatives, and all too often what people search for is a shortcut.

Shortcuts entail stepping away from established standards and best practices. The fact that standards of performance at all levels can be compromised is known by the person(s) looking at the shortcut, but that fact is not a barrier to further action. So begins the process where the parties involved start to rationalize the acceptability of the actions being taken.

In part I of this post I introduced my readers to a book by Dr. Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA. In her book she analyzes seven factors that influence people to deviate from the norm or standard. Because I do not want to abuse the courtesy of my readers I will focus on one of the more interesting factors; the rationalization that leads to shortcuts.  Doctor Vaughan focused was on factors that degraded safety standards, but because this is about behaviors, it has very strong relevance to ethics.

Decisions that may result in an unsafe act is at the heart of many ethical dilemmas. Given the right set of circumstances we defend a set of decisions because of the perceived criticality of the demands being made. This sense of urgency leads many of us to act quickly, and we justify it on the basis that it is just this one time. And this is the fallacy because it is almost never just one time. Once a person uses a shortcut without seeing any adverse consequences, the model is set, and the next time a crisis occurs or a schedule criticality develops, the shortcut is again used.

The interesting thing about this rationalization process is that it never involves just one person. Someone looking to break a rule, e.g., deviate from an established standard, always looks for someone to share the responsibility; preferably someone above him or her in the chain of command.

The importance of this mindset cannot be overstated. The decision to deviate from a standard because you do not have adequate time to finish a task or project on schedule is an unethical decision, but the unethical basis of the decision becomes hidden from sight when multiple people become involved in the decision to take the shortcut because, as is often the case, the decision doesn’t stop with the supervisor. He or she will involve other people as necessary to share the responsibility and the blame if something goes wrong.

As some of my readers already know or may have guessed, adverse consequences inevitably occur. In part III of this post, I will discuss the ethical consequences of what Dr. Vaughan called “the drift into failure”.

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Food for Thought. “Ingenuity was apparently given man in order that he may supply himself in crises with shapes and sounds with which to guard himself from truth.” (William Faulkner)

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