What Switches On Self-Interest, and Switches Off Company Interests?

Excerpt from “The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity, and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance” by David Gebler. (© 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.).

By David Gebler

Most leaders already know that to achieve superior results they must foster a healthy corporate culture grounded in strong values. This should be easy—most employees already share the same values their companies endorse. So why is it so hard? Why is it that in most organizations their corporate culture works against high performance and top results?

In his new book, David Gebler, an expert in culture, values, and performance, presents a new model of how organizations can get to the heart of why and how their corporate culture blocks performance. Following is an excerpt from “The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity, and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance.”

Culture has an impact on performance, but you can’t just calculate which culture can make your organization high performing and then will that culture into place, as if it were a compensation plan or an operational directive. Even if your people agree that a certain culture is desirable—say, greater teamwork or more openness—they cannot simply stop acting one way and start acting another. As you will see, people act according to their personal values, but they also are powerfully influenced by the environment around them—in this case, the organizational culture—even to the point that the culture can modify their personal values. As a result, you must influence behavior across your organization—and the good news is that you can. Culture is not only much more important than many leaders realize, but also much more actionable once you understand the key components and what keeps them working together for high performance and low ethical risk.

The first step toward removing the roadblocks that prevent your employees from doing their best is to understand what drives their behavior. In the companies I have worked with, the employees are generally good people who believe they are balancing their values, such as honesty and responsibility, with what is needed to get the job done. It turns out that, like most other people, they can be pretty good at fooling themselves.

Although we would like to think we are masters of our own decisions and actions, social norms and expectations significantly influence individual behavior. In the 1930s, Kurt Lewin, one of the pioneers of social psychology, conducted groundbreaking research on why people behave the way they do. Prior to Lewin, the prevailing theory had attributed a person’s behavior to either his or her personality and character (nature) or circumstances (nurture); Lewin showed that it was both. We, therefore, may behave differently in different circumstances. We are neither completely good nor completely bad, and we do not always act in the most rational way.

In the workplace, this means that any one of your employees at any time can decide to engage in activities that further the company’s interests or their own interests. Of course, at the far ends of the spectrum are sociopaths, who are not influenced by their environment, and virtuous people, who do the right thing no matter what. But most of us are somewhere in the middle: We generally act in accordance with our personal values, but our sense of when and how to apply our values is influenced by the social norms in the workplace and the society around us. Achievement, for example, is a universally accepted personal value, but in some cultures, getting ahead at the expense of others’ feelings is expected, while in others, the need to conform to group standards thwarts individual achievement. When making decisions, most employees instinctively search for a balance between two potentially opposing forces: their personal values—such as honesty, personal growth, and empathy toward others—and the social norms of their work environment. Research has shown that when these positions are not easily reconcilable, people are prone to put their personal values aside in deference to group norms or an authoritarian leader.

Recent research suggests that even our own sense of right and wrong is not as fixed as we would like to think. What is so important for leaders to understand is that our self-concept itself can change with the circumstances—in particular, with the organizational culture. Employees who feel honest also can feel pressured, influenced, or lured by the company’s culture into doing things they did not set out to do, they are not proud of, or they would not do in other circumstances. In my experience, it is as if we have a number of mental switches that turn on under certain circumstances, dangerously shifting the emphasis of our decision-making from the company’s interest to forms of self-interest that can range from personal gain to sheer self-protection. The three most important of these switches are self-deception, rationalization, and disengagement:

Self-deception: “I think it’s okay to do this.” Sometimes self-deception allows us to think what we are doing is right, even though, in other circumstances (or if done by other people), we would know it is wrong. Have you ever thought that maybe it isn’t  honest to accept the $25 bank error in your favor that has been part of Monopoly for three generations? If it never occurred to you, why not? Self-deception can even cloud our view of objective facts because we have such a vested interest in a particular decision. One reason that safety got away from BP in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster was a type of self-deception that caused managers not to see risks right in front of them.

Rationalization: “I know it’s wrong, but I have a good reason for doing it.”Under pressure to meet short-term goals, the right thing to do can seem wrong and the wrong thing can seem right. For audit employees at ill-fated telecommunications company WorldCom, for example, rationalizing misdeeds was justified when members of the audit team allowed themselves to be convinced that what they were doing was essential for saving the company. Once this switch is flipped, flipping it back is hard.

Disengagement:“I know there’s something wrong here, but it’s not my problem” or, “Why should I bother trying to help? They won’t listen to what I say or appreciate what I do.”Traditional rewards and punishments—raises and promotions or the denial of those things—can distort the more powerful intrinsic motivations of helping customers, helping one’s team, or doing a job one can be proud of. (This is a particular problem for knowledge workers who seek satisfaction from their creative work above and beyond their paychecks.) Once employees are making a sufficient living, giving them a sense of accomplishment and purpose does more than financial rewards or punishments to motivate them to do their best. In fact, traditional methods of reward sometimes can be counterproductive. And for all kinds of employees, management that is (or seems) too busy to listen or even say hello is, in fact, a serious risk factor, flipping the switch so employees’ natural impulse to contribute to the company’s success is cut off; instead, it seems right not to bother.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., “The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity, and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance” by David Gebler. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

David Gebler is founder and president of the Skout Group, global advisors helping leaders determine whether and how their organization’s culture is costing them money, and what they can do to both reduce risk and increase performance. A speaker and panelist, he is author of “The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity, and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance.”

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