Let me start by saying that I don’t want to point any fingers here. I´m pretty sure cheating (as well as being altruistic!) is part of human nature. Each and everyone of us lies and cheats once in a while…
Mostly, it´s the larger-than-life cases that grab our attention. We have our Lance Armstrongs in sports, the Diederik Stapels in (psychological) sciences, the Milli Vanillis in music, and of course a long list of fraudulences and scandals in business, starting with the 15th century Medici Bank, all the way up to the Enrons of our time – and now VW´s DieselGate.
As usual, when looking at a phenomenon such as this, I´m trying to take on the perspective of an (organizational) psychologist. While searching for Positive Psychology studies to write about, I stumbled upon this article – I think it has something to say on what happened at Germany´s largest car manufacturer:
All people are “good” – but beware of the “slippery slope”…
The authors argue that larger frauds typically start out as minor transgressions – which exacerbate over time when not properly prevented early on.
In this article, we argue that committing small indiscretions over time may gradually lead people to commit larger unethical acts that they otherwise would have judged to be impermissible. We refer to this phenomenon as the slippery slope of unethical behavior.
While this idea per se can be considered common sense, the researchers provide compelling empirical evidence for the existence of this phenomenon.
Although there are many anecdotes about the slippery slope in the business world, our results provide the first empirical evidence that we are aware of regarding susceptibility to increased unethical behavior over time […]. Exposure to slippery-slope conditions more than doubled the rates of unethical behavior in our studies.
Via a series of laboratory and online experiments, they are able to demonstrate that
the slippery-slope effect increases unethical behavior through the mediating mechanism of moral disengagement and that this effect can be attenuated by inducing a prevention focus.
When talking about the managerial implications of their research, Welsh et al. conclude:
Managers may want to consider whether their organization possesses a strong ethical culture in which misconduct is clearly defined and even small deviations are quickly addressed. Those who notice and address questionable employee conduct may be able to reduce the likelihood that minor indiscretions will escalate over time. Addressing minor instances of unethical behavior by a particular employee may also help curb the unethical behaviors of other employees.
managers may want to frame ethics-related tasks so as to encourage a prevention focus when employees are completing them. For example, more ethical behavior may result over time when employees are encouraged to be vigilant in identifying financial mistakes rather than creative in attempting to find new financial loopholes. Setting and maintaining an ethical status quo represent an important way in which employees may be prevented from starting down the slippery slope even in situations in which they might feel justified in doing so.
The tl;dr version of this article:
A stitch in time saves nine!