Why Good Leaders Do Bad Things

Mental gymnastics behind unethical behavior

2003 Volume 6 Issue 4

In making ethical decisions, let virtuous values guide your judgments and beware of the mental games that can undermine ethical decision making.

As the General Manager for an industrial distributor, you have recently learned that your consistently top performing purchasing manager has violated company policy by accepting an expensive gift from a supplier. Since you believe that this was likely a one-time lapse in judgment, what would you say or do? Your response could range from “looking the other way” to firing the manager.

In this situation, as in all ethical choices or dilemmas, the leader’s thought pattern (cognitive process) will significantly influence what action he or she takes. People’s patterns of thinking will be influenced by their values, what they say to themselves (self-talk), and what they imagine will happen in response to their actions. At its most basic level, ethical managerial leadership involves discerning right from wrong and acting in alignment with such judgment.

Leaders with strong virtuous values are more likely to act ethically than are leaders who are operating with a weak or non-existent value system. One set of values that seems to be universally accepted includes wisdom, self-control, justice, transcendence, kindness, and courage.[1] When faced with challenging decisions, leaders who have not internalized a value system that includes these values will probably respond with more variability than will one who has such a system. It is primarily in the situation in which the leader does not have an internalized value system that mental gymnastics or mind games may cause an otherwise good person to make unethical decisions.

In this article we will review mind games that leaders may play when they face difficult decisions and lack both a strong value system and a professional and ethical approach to management. These leaders tend to react to circumstances on a situational basis. Some suggestions on how managerial leaders can deal with challenging decisions are offered throughout the following discussion.

Mind Games

Decision making can often result in managerial missteps, even those decisions that involve ethical considerations. Many common themes emerge as we look at these problematic decisions. Most significantly, various cognitive processes that leaders often unwittingly employ and which may be called “mental gymnastics” or mind games may serve to support and sustain unethical behavior.

Mind Game #1: Quickly Simplify – “Satisficing”

When we are confronted with a complicated problem, most of us react by reducing the problem to understandable terms. We simplify.

Notwithstanding the considerable power of our human intellect, we are often unable to cognitively process all of the information needed to reach an optimal decision. Instead, we tend to make quick decisions based on understandable and readily available elements related to the decision. We search for a solution that is both satisfactory and sufficient. Full rationality gives way to bounded rationality, which finds leaders considering the essential elements of a problem without taking into account all of its complexities. Unfortunately, this process, called “satisficing,” can lead to solutions that are less than optimal or even ethically deficient.[2]

“Satisficing” leads the managerial leader to alternatives that tend to be easy to formulate, familiar, and close to the status quo. When one grapples with complex ethical considerations, this approach to decision making may not produce the best solutions. Ethical dilemmas can often benefit from creative thinking that explores ideas beyond the usual responses. If a decision maker uses satisficing when crafting a solution to an ethical problem, the best alternative may be overlooked. David Messick and Max Bazerman, researchers in decision making, tell us that when executives “satisfice,” they often simplify, thereby overlooking low probability events, neglecting to consider some stakeholders, and failing to identify possible long-term consequences.[3]

One of the best ways to guard against oversimplifying and reaching less than optimal solutions to ethical challenges is to discuss the situation with other trusted colleagues. Have them play devil’s advocate. Ask them to challenge your decision. The resulting dialogue can improve the quality of your ethical decision making.

Scholar and ethics consultant Laura Nash suggests twelve questions that can help leaders avoid the mind game of over simplifying.[4] The following questions may raise ethical issues not otherwise considered, or help generate a variety of “out of the box” alternatives. Before settling on a solution, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I specified the problem accurately?
  • How would I describe the problem if I were on the opposite side of the fence?
  • How did this situation begin?
  • To whom and to what do I give my loyalties as a person or group and as a member of the organization?
  • What is my intention in making this decision?
  • How does this intention compare with the likely results?
  • Whom could my decision or action harm?
  • Can I engage those involved in a discussion of the problem prior to making a decision?
  • Am I confident that my position will be valid over the long term?
  • Could I disclose without reservation my decision or action to my boss, our CEO, the Board of Directors, my family, or society as a whole?
  • What is the symbolic impact of my action if it is understood?
  • Under what conditions would I allow exceptions to my position?

These questions initiate a thought process that underscores the importance of problem identification and information gathering. Such a process can help leaders guard against over simplifying an otherwise complicated ethical decision.

Mind Game #2: The Need to be Liked

Most people want to be liked. However, when this desire to be liked overpowers business objectivity, ethical lapses can occur. For instance, when managers witness ethical transgressions, the need to be liked may cause them to overlook these transgressions. Such a situation is particularly acute for those recently promoted into management from within the same organization. Because they want to be liked by their former peers, they may have a difficult time saying, “No.” Dr. Albert Ellis, author of A New Guide to Rational Living,[5] notes that one of eleven irrational beliefs that some people hold is the belief that one can or should always be liked. He states that people who are affected by this need carry around in their heads statements such as, “I believe I must be approved by virtually everyone with whom I come in contact.”

Such an overriding desire to be liked can ultimately adversely affect the ethics of people in an organization and thus can decrease the firm’s bottom line. For instance, a retail store manager who wants her employees to like her may readily give them additional hours when they request them to enable employees to earn more money. However, in so doing, the manager contributes to the accumulation of too many hours of labor relative to sales volume. Over time, excessive labor costs can then begin to eat into profit margins.

After recognizing that she is playing this mind game, one way that the manager might stem this problem is to distance herself from her subordinates (e.g., reduce unnecessary socializing) until she can establish some objective boundaries. Another successful approach would be to respond warmly and assertively toward employees while still going forward with appropriate but possibly less popular decisions. (If necessary, the manager could even take assertiveness training.) Finally, in such situations, the newly appointed manager might want to read Alberti and Emmons’ book, Your Perfect Right.[6] This book provides excellent advice on how to say “no” while preserving a quality relationship.

Mind Game #3: Dilute and Disguise

In trying to strike a diplomatic chord, leaders can disguise the offensiveness of unethical acts by using euphemisms or softened characterizations. Words or phrases such as “helped him make a career choice” are used to describe firing someone, or “inappropriate allocation of resources” is used to describe what everyone knows is stealing. Regardless of whether people want to be seen as kinder and gentler, or just politically correct, this process merely helps wrongdoers and those associated with them to get away with unethical behavior.

Such softened characterizations serve to reduce the anxiety of the leader, but these euphemisms are dishonest. They serve to dilute and disguise unethical behavior. This form of mental gymnastics defuses discomfort that may otherwise develop among those involved in unethical “mischief,” but such an approach dilutes the necessary intensity of ethical constraints that should be brought to bear in the situation. The antidote is for leaders to talk straight and to avoid euphemistic labeling or recharacterizing unethical behavior.

Mind Game #4: “Making Positive”

The mental gymnastic of comparing one’s own unethical behavior to more heinous behavior committed by others serves only to avoid self-degradation. For example, the salesperson who occasionally cheats when reporting his expenses may say to himself, “I do this only a few times a year, while Tom, Dick, and Harry do it all the time.” Or, “If you think I disregard my colleagues’ feelings, you ought to see Andy in action. He is a bona fide bully!” Unethical behavior appears more ethical by comparing it to worse behavior.

Such justifications for unethical behavior are not valid. The tendency to diminish misdeeds by making dishonest comparisons also contributes to sustaining unethical conduct. To avoid this mind game, ask three questions about the comparison:

  • Am I comparing apples to oranges?
  • How self-serving is this comparison?
  • What would three objective observers say about me and my objectivity regarding this comparison?

While behavior may often legitimately be compared to that of others, when ethical transgressions are involved, relativity does not excuse ethical lapses.

Mind Game #5: Overconfidence

Overconfident managers tend to perceive their abilities to be greater than they actually are. Self-perception often does not match objective reality. By indulging in the mental gymnastics of overconfidence, such leaders can discount others’ perceptions and thus easily overlook the insights and talents of other people. Without benefit of input from those around them, overconfident managerial leaders may be blind to the most appropriate ethical choices in given circumstances and may consider only their own ideas regarding the best course of action. Overconfident managers act as though they are “above it all,” relegating their people, useful information, and learning opportunities to the sidelines while pursuing their own courses of action.

Overconfident decision makers deny themselves fresh perspectives and thus perhaps better solutions to ethical problems. The overconfident manager is typically perceived as arrogant. Research tells us that the manager labeled thusly is headed for career derailment.[7] Arrogant managerial leaders who have performance problems, which may include ignoring, overlooking, or causing ethical concern, are likely to receive less understanding and support from others in their time of trouble. Their air of overconfidence not only interferes with the practice of quality ethical decision making, but it can also virtually wreck their careers.

One tool to counterbalance this unproductive and potentially deadly tendency is for the overconfident managerial leader to catch himself or herself when preparing to make declarative, “This is the way it is” statements, and replace them with more open ended, “What do you think?” types of inquiries. If practiced conscientiously, this simple communication tool can help the overly confident manager begin to consider others’ perspectives. Accepting input from other people will improve the manager’s decision making ability generally, including those issues that involve ethical consideration. Applied broadly, this practice will positively impact the ethical problem solving climate within the entire organization.

These five mind games can influence an otherwise good leader to act unethically. Each of the mental maneuvers provides an easy way around difficult decisions, with the likely outcome that some of those decisions will result in unethical behavior. However, the intrinsic benefit of pursuing an ethical course will be a source of motivation for leaders to get on track ethically and stay there. By staying the course and behaving in a way that is consistent with his or her virtuous values and attitudes, the ethical managerial leader will have less need to play these types of mind games.

A Call to Action

Examine your thoughts when confronted with ethical choice points. In making ethical decisions, let virtuous values guide your judgments, and avoid playing mental games that undermine ethical behavior. If unchecked, indulging in these games can lead you to do bad things while feeling justified by your wrongdoing, at least temporarily. You are encouraged to heed the following suggestions that can help defend against participating in these mind games.

As you approach an ethical decision, to what extent do you do the following?

  • Deliberate the obvious and not so obvious circumstances surrounding the issue.
  • Decide objectively without regard to being liked.
  • Talk about transgressions and ethical breaches using straightforward words.
  • Make valid comparisons when discussing specific ethical behavior.
  • Act with an appropriate level of confidence.

If you responded favorably to these questions, then perhaps these five mind games are not stumbling blocks for you. Less favorable or more uncertain responses may impel you to consider how your patterns of thinking may be adversely affecting your approach to ethical decision making.


[1] Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness (New York: Free Press, 2002). For definitions of these “virtuous values,” and a discussion about their role in the business environment see Charles D. Kerns, “Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Workplace Culture,” Graziadio Business Review, 6, Issue 3.

[2] Stephen P. Robbins, Essentials of Organizational Behavior, 7th ed., New Jersey: Prentice-Hall (2003).

[3] David M. Messick and M. H. Bazerman, “Ethical Leadership and the Psychology of Decision Making,” Sloan Management Review 37 (Winter, 1996), p. 9.

[4] Laura L. Nash, “Ethics Without the Sermon,” in K. R. Andrews (ed) Ethics in Practice: Managing the Moral Corporation, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, (1989), p. 243-257.

[5] Albert Ellis and R. A. Harper, A New Guide To Rational Living, 3rd ed., 1997, (North Hollywood, CA: Wilshire).

[6] Robert Alberti and M. L. Emmons, Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Living, 7th ed. (San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact, 1995).

[7] Morgan W. McCall, High Flyers: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1998).

About the Author(s)

Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.

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