The non-conscious aspects of ethical behavior: not everything in the 'good' organization is deliberate and intentional.

AuthorReynolds, Scott J.
PositionReducing Corporate Criminality: Evaluating Department of Justice Policy on the Prosecution of Business Organizations and Options for Reform


With regard to the ethical organization, it is generally understood that "good" organizations 1) establish ethical standards; 2) regularly make those standards salient; 3) monitor behavior; and 4) reward and punish accordingly. While it is typical to think of these processes as occurring at conscious levels, I will discuss research that suggests that each process can, and does, occur at non-conscious levels--that an ethical culture exists and influences employees in ways that neither management nor employees likely recognize. Then I will discuss the expectations that should circumscribe a "good" organization.


    When organizational leaders and policy makers seek to improve the ethical behavior of individuals within an organization, they tend to focus on the organization's formal structures. The underlying belief that fosters such efforts is that formal organizational structures (e.g., codes of conduct, ethics hotlines, ethics training programs) have the most direct impact on individual day-to-day behavior and thus have the most influence in shaping the ethical decisions that individuals make. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines (1) exemplify and reinforce this mentality by specifying internal mechanisms believed to be the most effective at encouraging ethical conduct. (2) Within the guidelines, each proposed mechanism is a formal structure designed to directly impact individual behavior. (3)

    In recent years, many have acknowledged that informal elements can be just as important to creating an ethical culture as formal structures. Whether we are considering daily rituals, such as water cooler conversations, or more subtle norms, such as a collective muteness about ethical issues in the workplace, (4) ample evidence indicates that the informal aspects of a culture can powerfully shape individual behavior. Most notably, Trevino, Weaver, Gibson and Toffler conducted a large study of organizations exploring the effectiveness of the mechanisms discussed in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. (5) They sampled more than 10,000 employees selected randomly from six American companies, and questioned them about the details of their companies' ethics/compliance programs (e.g., code of conduct, reporting systems) as well as their attitudes toward the programs and ethics, more generally. (6) While Trevino et al.'s results indicated that the formal mechanisms effectively reduced unethical behavior and promoted ethical conduct, the data also indicated that the informal aspects of these cultures were also critically important to the attitudes and conduct of the individual employees. (7) Specifically, Trevino et al. noted the importance of leadership, fair treatment, ethics in discussions, reward systems, accountability, and organizational focus to the overall success of an ethics/compliance program. (8) Since Trevino's 1999 study, our general understanding of what constitutes an effective organizational ethics effort has broadened, and most acknowledge that the informal features of an ethical culture are critically important to the success of an ethics initiative.

    Just as our focus has expanded beyond formal structures to include more informal aspects of an organizational culture, a wave of research in psychology suggests that we must also be willing to expand our view of how individuals respond to the culture in which they work. In psychology, more and more research suggests that individual decision-making involves two systems: an intentionally deliberate system (typically regarded as conscious thought) and an automatic and reflexive system (commonly understood as non-conscious processing). Though the deliberate system has been the primary focus of scholars for more than 100 years, research on the non-conscious system is growing, and it clearly suggests that non-conscious processes play a critical if not dominant role in individual decision-making. In this light, I suggest that those interested in improving an organization's influence on individual ethical behavior might consider this research and its implications for how we assess the ethical organization.

    In this Article, I will review research on the non-conscious processes that underlie individual decision-making. In particular, I will draw attention to research that focuses on the non-conscious aspects of individual ethical decision-making and non-conscious processes that impact both ethical and unethical conduct. With that foundation, I will then discuss the expectations that should define a "good" organization.


    A. Two Systems

    In psychology, it is generally understood that individual decision-making operates at two levels, and scholars have characterized this reality by suggesting the decision-making entails two systems in the brain. (9) One system, commonly referred to as conscious thought, is most closely associated with reasoned and deliberate thinking (e.g., it is the process that you, as the reader, are using to examine and understand the message communicated in this sentence). (10) The other system, generally regarded as the non-conscious system, is charged with a variety of tasks that allow the first system to operate. (11) Most obviously, this system scans the environment securing information for the other system to consider (for example, the non-conscious system is scanning this page to bring the words on it to the attention of the conscious system for consideration). The fundamental difference between the two systems and their tasks is illustrated by a classic exercise known as the Stroop Effect. (12) In the Stroop Effect, participants are presented a list of colors each written in a different color font. Participants are instructed to go through the list stating the color of the font of each word as quickly as possible. In the first iteration the word and the font color are the same (the word "red" is listed in red font). In the second iteration, the color of the font does not match the text (the word "red" is listed in blue font), and a noticeable delay in response time occurs. This delay is attributed to a conflict between systems. The non-conscious system automatically makes the information embedded in the text (i.e., the meaning of that particular word) available to the deliberate system for processing, but as that information impedes accomplishment of the task at hand, identifying the color of the font, a delay is typically experienced. (13) This delay is not necessarily large, but it is measurable and very obvious to the participant (e.g., reading twenty text/font mismatched words may take five to ten seconds longer than reading twenty text/font consistent words). (14)

    B. Research on Non-Conscious Processes

    The Stroop Effect is interesting in part because it is the exception to a general condition. In the vast majority of decision-making opportunities, the two systems are complementary and produce efficient decisions. When properly coordinating, their different processes and influences can be difficult to discern, but teasing these systems apart, as the Stroop Effect does, has become a priority for many researchers in this domain. To better explore the non-conscious processes and their impact on individual decision-making and behavior, researchers have developed many techniques to prime (trigger) and/or isolate the non-conscious processes of decision-making. As an example, scholars have used word exercises (e.g., word completion exercises, word searches, sentence scrambles) to introduce participants to terms associated with particular constructs or themes. (15) By introducing words, the exercise primes the associated concepts in the non-conscious system often without participants even being aware of such an intent or outcome. Other common priming techniques include exposing participants to explicit instructions, vignettes, media clips, environmental cues (e.g., briefcases, posters on a wall), confederates (i.e., researchers posing as participants), and more.

    It has been theorized and demonstrated that once primed, participants' behaviors are more likely to be consistent with those constructs or themes. Bargh, Chen, and Burrows' study of priming behavior is perhaps one of the best of examples of work in this domain. (16) As some of the first scholars working in this area, their intent was to establish whether subtle cues could access non-conscious processes and thereby impact behavior. In their first experiment, groups of participants were asked to complete a sentence scramble. (17) In one group, the sentences included words associated with the concept of rudeness. In the other group, the words were instead associated with politeness. Participants were instructed to complete the task and then submit their materials to a research assistant waiting outside the laboratory. Unbeknownst to the participants, the research assistant was waiting outside with a confederate. Upon seeing the subject exit the lab, the research assistant started a stopwatch and pretended to be deeply engaged in a conversation with the confederate. The research assistant continued the conversation, timing how long it would take the participant to interrupt the conversation to hand in his/her materials. The researchers found that on average, participants from the group that had been primed with the concept of rudeness interrupted the conversation more quickly than did the participants from the group primed with the concept of politeness. (18) Afterwards, participants were questioned as to whether they thought the scrambled-sentence exercise might have influenced them during the rest of the experiment. Interestingly, none showed any awareness or suspicion that the scrambled sentence exercise might have influenced their behavior. (19)

    In their second experiment, Bargh, Chen, and Burrows provided two groups of participants a sentence completion task similar to the one used in the first study. (20) In this task...

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