3 Little Nudges That Can Make Your People Behave More Ethically

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We like to believe our character determines our behavior — that good people behave well and bad people badly — but science suggests the real world isn’t so neat and tidy. The situations we find ourselves in, and even seemingly minor details of our lives, have large effects on whether we behave ethically.

Take the famous Good Samaritan study as an example. The social psychologists behind the research recreated the Biblical story, with a twist. They conspired to send 67 seminary students past a confederate pretending to be a distressed individual in need of assistance. Would these morally minded individuals stop and help?

The answer, it turned out, depended not on any deep seated truths about their personality or beliefs, but largely on one small variable — how much of a rush they were in. When the students were told they were running late for a talk, only ten percent stopped to lend a hand. When the study subjects were ambling towards the same talk at a leisurely pace, 63 percent offered assistance.

It might not flatter our sense of ourselves as intrinsically ethical people, but the truth is the situations you find yourself in matter A LOT when it comes to your choices. That should cause you to pause and consider how to up your own chances of behaving in a way you’d be proud of, but it’s also useful information for bosses, according to a recent post on Google re:Work blog about the work of UNC professor Sreedhari Desai.

Desai researches how behavioral nudges affect our ethics, and she recently shared her insights at re:Work’s 2016 event. The post includes the full video of her talk but it also offers a short rundown of the main takeaways for those looking for a quick-and-dirty summary of how to nudge their people to be more ethical. Here they are in brief:

1. Itemize expenses.

This one is perhaps the least surprising of Desai’s findings. Her research shows that when customers are given itemized lists of costs with their bills, they are much less frequently overcharged. She suggests that a similarly detailed approach could counteract the temptation to overbill for those who charge by the hour.

2. Choose your wall decor thoughtfully.

This one is a little more surprising. What do you have up on your office wall? Whatever is there now, swapping it out for an icon of ethical behavior — an image of Martin Luther King, Jr. say, or Mother Theresa — would likely cause your team to behave more ethically, Desai’s research suggests.

3. Connect with your inner child.

This is probably the least expected of Desai’s insights. Apparently, simply glimpsing a picture of themselves in more innocent days or spending a few moments in a childish pursuit like goofy doodling can inspire people to dig deep for the best in themselves. “The idea of childhood and moral purity is deeply coupled,” explains Desai. So if you want your team to be at their most moral, keeping a few childhood mementos around might just do the trick.