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Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
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From an early age people imitate others. Our talent for this is down to our mirror neurons.
A few days after birth, babies will already stick out their tongues when others do so, and cry
when they hear another baby crying. Later on we laugh when others laugh, and suffer pain
when others suffer pain (at least when the others are people we love). When we look at what
someone else is doing, we carry out the action in our thoughts. We copy behavior because
this offers us something to hold onto in a world of uncertainty and unknowns. It makes life
easier, because we don’t always have to think for ourselves. We also have a ‘normative need’:
other people are more willing to accept us if we endorse their actions and go along with them
than if we reject them and distance ourselves. As a politician said about mores within politics,
‘If you don’t know how it should be done, then you don’t belong here.’ That’s why we observe
what others do.
If other people do something in a particular way, then we quickly interpret this as a sensible
thing to do. In a dirty environment the descriptive norm is that it is acceptable to throw litter
into the street, and that this is also perfectly sensible, because it will be cleaned up (so we
tell ourselves, even if the state of the environment suggests otherwise), or you have more
important things to do (such as hurrying to get somewhere on time), or people will give you
funny looks if you go in search of a trash can. This descriptive norm does not alter the fact
that there is an injunctive norm which tells people not to throw litter into the street. When the
injunctive and descriptive norms conlict, the question is which takes priority. The more the
descriptive norm imposes itself, the greater the chance that this is followed. The more you
are surrounded by speeding cars, the greater the chance that you too will exceed the speed
limit. In the case of the experiment, the greater the mess in the parking lot, the greater the
chance that your own lyer too will end up on the ground. It’s easy to come up with an excuse:
everyone does it, so I do too.
The message is that it is worth ensuring a ‘clean’ environment, both literally and iguratively:
physical clutter within the organization will only cause more clutter, and an organization which
makes a mess of things, will encourage behavior among employees and outsiders which
will lead to more mess. If you set a good example, others will follow
That’s why a clean
environment is important.
14. What happens normally is the norm: descriptive and injunctive norms