Twice as Nice: On ethics teaching

Can people be taught to be more ethical? While some may say teaching ethics is a recipe for continued headaches and an ongoing, almost Sisyphus-like journey to ensure lessons are absorbed, a new study has positive implications for both academics and practitioners who have dedicated their work to engaging others in ethics education, training and programs.

The as yet unpublished study, covered by Ben DiPietro in The Wall Street Journal’s “Morning Risk Report” and presented at the recent Academy of Management conference, spotlights a key training tactic that will greatly increase ethics knowledge retention and, in the long term, may possibly reduce misconduct.

Professor Jeffrey Loewenstein of the College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign a lead author on the paper, founded that for conflicts of interest, giving subjects two examples and asking for a comparison produced a sizeable gain in their ability to identify an ethical dilemma. The research subjects were presented information in 4 different ways, and then tested at the end to determine their ability to identify an ethical dilemma. Providing student-subjects with two examples of a dilemma for comparison outweighed the other teaching methods, which included merely presenting a conflict of interest and requesting feedback, providing only a dictionary definition of the term, or giving just one example.

As Loewenstein explains in DiPietro’s report, “In the first three instances, about 10% to 15% of the subjects were able to identify the conflict, whereas [in the instance where they compared examples] the numbers jump to between 30 and 50 percent. Many companies assume people know right from wrong and know ethical principles, when probably they were never taught, and when instructed through abstract definitions or a single example they don’t get the general idea very well.”

Viewing the study through a systems design lens, this is a beneficial nudge that facilitates a viable and encouraging uptick in traction. We have explored changing organizations through a systems approach, and the less susceptible employees can be to blindspots and ethical fading, the easier it will be to create a culture of integrity and growth. For more on blindspots and related concepts, see this interview with ES collaborator Ann Tenbrunsel.

It is absolutely vital for all businesses to be aware of conflicts of interest that can be baked into systems- e.g., having auditors paid by clients- and those that arise organically, such as in-office relationships. What this new study confirms, is that by further engaging people with specific and comparative examples we have a greater chance of prolonged success. That is certainly worth repeating at least twice.

*Image: Raphael's "School of Athens," via Wikimedia Commons

Further Learning:

Ethical Systems recommends the Conflict of Interest blog, authored by ES collaborator Jeffrey Kaplan. They recently indexed dozens of posts around what behavioral ethics might mean for corporate compliance and ethics program.