The research: Sreedhari Desai, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, ran a series of studies in which subjects believed they were part of a virtual team playing a game. The subjects were told that they’d earn more money if they got their teammates to unwittingly spread a lie. Unbeknownst to the participants, the other players were all researchers. In the signatures of their e-mails to the subjects, some included a quote about integrity, some a neutral quote, and some no quote at all. The subjects were least likely to ask the people who put the virtuous saying in their messages to do their unethical bidding.
The challenge: Can you really insulate yourself from wrongdoing by advertising your values? Or will people just think you’re being holier than thou? Pofessor Desai, defend your research.
Desai: We clearly saw that if people had decided to do the unethical thing, they were far less likely to try to involve someone who displayed a quote on morals than to approach other team members. We also found that when subjects were presented with such a quote, the likelihood that they’d send a deceptive message at all was generally lower. So a virtuous quote not only shielded a teammate from being asked to do a bad thing but also seemed to regulate the subjects.
HBR: What quote were they shown?
“Success without honor is worse than fraud.” It clearly takes a point of view on ethics. The neutral quote, in contrast, was “Success and luck go hand in hand.”
In another study, we didn’t use e-mail messages but had team members build little digital avatars of themselves. In fact, the subjects thought that the study was about avatars. The shirts the avatars wore had brands on them. Some were “moral” brands, like YourMorals.org, while others weren’t. The outcome was similar: When subjects saw that a team member had an avatar wearing a moral brand, they didn’t try to get him or her to participate in a deception.
In another study, we primed people to feel powerful before playing the game, just to see if power somehow mitigated the effect of the moral talisman. But it didn’t; we still got very similar results.
What’s causing these results?
When someone is in a position to request an unethical thing, they may not consciously be thinking, “I won’t ask that person.” Instead, they may perceive a person as morally “pure” and feel that asking them to get “dirty” makes an ethical transgression even worse. Or they may be concerned that someone with moral character will just refuse the request.
Games in labs are artificial. Are you sure this carries over to the real world?
In business surveys, a high percentage of employees report they’ve been asked to do unethical things. That’s how all this started. My coresearcher, Maryam Kouchaki, and I wanted to see if we could empower employees so that their supervisors wouldn’t ask in the first place. We did an analysis of employees and managers in India. We asked the bosses if they’d noticed anything religious about their subordinates, like vermilion dots on their foreheads or pictures of Hindu gods or quotes from the Koran or the Bible in their cubicles. We know from previous research that people associate these religious symbols with morality. We also asked the subordinates if they’d gotten a request to do something unethical in the past six months. Controlling for job satisfaction, performance, and the quality of work relationships, we still found that people who wore or displayed religious symbols were less likely to be asked to do something shady.
That’s encouraging. It’s such a simple intervention.
What encouraged me most was that we also controlled for religious beliefs. Even if managers were exposed to symbols for a religion different from their own, the mitigating effect was there. We often hear in the media of inter-religious tensions, but this suggests that religious symbols communicate something universally positive to us.
Couldn’t this effect wash away if everyone starts displaying quotations and symbols?
That’s part of why we wanted to do the workplace survey. If I see Krishna in your cubicle every day, would that priming effect fade over time? Would the managers be desensitized? It doesn’t appear that they were.
Is it just religious symbols and quotes about ethics that affect us?
I’d love to study other types of cues. I suspect that if I showed quotes about environmental causes—about the sanctity of nature—my boss would be less likely to ask me to dump chemicals into a river. Obviously, empirical evidence is needed, but I’d predict the same effect.
So would you recommend that employees display their morality more prominently?
Well, just to be clear, we didn’t test people’s morality. We tested how others perceived symbols of morality—and behaved in response. You could have a beautiful quote on your e-mail and also be an unethical person. But in general, I’d say the findings support displaying moral symbols as a way to signal to others that you’re a good person and reduce the chances that you’ll be asked to do bad things.
Could the symbols make bosses unwilling to take on hard choices, though?
We tested some for that. In another study, we found that displaying moral symbols did not affect whether bosses would lay you off. And in another, we tested whether they affected other people’s perceptions of your leadership and competence, and found that they did not. By the way, we asked those people if they remembered the moral quotes from the leaders they were evaluating. Oddly, people couldn’t always identify the quote they’d just read, but they still were left with a favorable impression of the leaders’ morality. It could be a subconscious effect.
What if this result is peculiar to certain cultures?
There could be cultural boundaries. In fact, we’re studying how people react to moral symbols in Australia. Our preliminary study showed that people there were skeptical of moral displays. They seemed to think the bloke with the quote was being “holier than thou” and probably had something to hide. They were more fond of and likely to spare someone with fun-loving and silly quotes. I have to explore what makes Australians different.
Why is this research important?
What I love about it is that it doesn’t at all concern behaviors that are publicly known. It measures what people do when they’re aware that no one else will know they’re being dishonest. And to me, the heartening thing is that overall, the incidence of unethical behavior dropped because of moral displays. Not just in what people asked others to do, but what people did themselves. It tells me we can do better. The glass is half full for me.
You messed up, though. If you had started this conversation with a pithy saying about integrity, I’d be less likely to misquote you and make your research look foolish.
I don’t think it’s too late. “Let thy secret unseen acts be such as if the men thou prizest most were witness around thee.” Now I’m counting on you to do the right thing.