Ethics is a hot topic these days, and (sadly) for good reason. There is little sign that greater emphasis on ethics and compliance has led to better behavior, at least judging from recent headlines.  Ethicalsystems.org is an inspiring organization that is trying to understand how to foster more effective ways to promote ethical reasoning and action. Its team of research collaborators includes Dan Ariely, Jon Haidt, and other academic heavyweights whose research spans an incredible range of methods and findings. They’re trying to give away the best research and thinking on how to get people to do the right things in business.  It got me thinking.

Hal Movuis

In Resolve, I write about how we can learn to be more courageous and effective in approaching and managing conflicts, including negotiations.  Recently I’ve been mulling the notion that being able to summon confidence might also be critical to encouraging whistle blowing and other forms of ethical behavior.

Witnessing or hearing of unethical or questionable behavior puts one into potential conflict with colleagues, supervisors, friends, or other stakeholders.  Speaking up feels risky, and for a reason:  social capital (relationships and reputation) is at stake.  Perhaps, then, we need to teach people how to summon confidence at these moments.

I’ve suggested that confidence is not a Goldilocks problem, i.e., one where the ideal is neither too little nor too much. In geeky terms, it can be defined as “a self-relevant attitude that is domain-specific and comprised of affective, behavioral, and cognitive components.”  (affective = emotional)  In laymen’s terms: we need to be able to draw on mastery, expanded awareness, and poise.

I believe we can teach students and leaders to boost emotional and behavioral confidence in approaching ethics violations, while also teaching them ways to reduce the likelihood of cognitive overconfidence, an unwarranted certainty in our perceptions and beliefs.

It’s more theory than conclusion at this point, and skeptics might argue that it doesn’t address the central problem in preventing ethical lapses: our own blind spots about our thinking and actions. But I’ve seen the positive effects of teaching people to be more emotionally and behaviorally confident at the negotiating table; maybe teaching them how to raise issues or point out questionable practices more ably and wisely should be a critical teaching focus as well.

After all, one reason that bad things happen in the work place and beyond is that good people don’t act to stop them.