Psychological knowledge of practice

Managers are often accused of intentionally acting unethically and accepting environmental harm or exploitative practices only for profit. Maximize. However, in many cases, they may not be aware of the moral consequences of their actions in everyday business – they are acting “morally blind”. Managers are especially prone to moral blindness when it comes to organizational red tape.

Corporations are directly or indirectly involved in most major societal problems, from the exploitation of human labor to the destruction of our environment. All of these companies are run by managers who make decisions with enormous social and environmental consequences on a daily basis. It is usually assumed that decision makers consciously accept “collateral damage” for economic reasons in order to meet the expectations of shareholders and other important interest groups. For example, according to the popular concept, managers of major textile companies will consider the advantages and disadvantages of some environmental damage (such as dumping toxic sewage into rivers) or exploitative behavior (such as hiring people in exchange for dumping wages in workshops). He decides over and over to show this behavior anyway, because it’s more cost-effective. While in some cases managers may consciously make unethical decisions, there is an alternative explanation for many of these situations: “moral blindness” (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011; Palazzo et al., 2012).

moral blindness

Moral blindness means that actors are in situations that may have potentially negative consequences for others or the environment Without knowledge or knowledge And Unintentionally They behave unethically – they are temporarily “morally blind”. In other words, the moral aspect of the situation is completely ignored. The most famous example of moral blindness is the so-called “Ford Pinto scandal” of the automaker Ford since the 1970s (Goya, 1992): due to its design, the small car model “Pento” showed a certain tendency to explode in flames even in minor rear-end collisions. Although Ford was aware of the problem, more than 20 people died before Ford began recalling. The reason is that the cost of compensation in the event of death or injury was much lower than the profits made by Pinto. Several Ford officials were apparently unaware of the ethical dimension of their inactivity: Dennis Gioia, a now-known management professor, was at Ford as a “recall manager” and was jointly responsible for any recall campaigns. He also did not act, but considered not to act as a “good business decision” based on a cost-benefit analysis (Gioia, 1992, p. 382). In this case, as he details in his highly self-critical article, he was “morally blind.” Only later did he realize the moral implications of his behavior. So moral blindness can have serious consequences – in the case of the Ford Pinto. But how does it arise?

Moral blindness due to rigid “cognitive frameworks”

According to previous research, the main cause of moral blindness lies in rigid “cognitive frameworks” (Palazzo et al., 2012). Frames constitute the frame of reference within which a situation is evaluated. For example, a situation can be viewed through a technical, commercial or ethical framework, that is, from a technical, commercial or ethical perspective. Depending on the tire used, the situation (eg accidental vehicle blowouts) is recognized as a problem – or not.

Frames allow for rapid assessment of situations through automated and selective perception and increase the efficiency of human thinking and representation. However, the downside is the risk of “ignoring” the relevant (eg ethical) aspects of this situation. Under special circumstances – this is the case with the so-called rigid Frames – the people involved can perceive only one aspect of a phenomenon (eg the economic aspect) and then the situation can no longer be viewed from a different perspective (eg ethical). If a microcosm of rigid frameworks develops in a company, then unethical decisions within this microcosm can also be understood as natural, rational, and ethical, even if the evaluation appears completely unethical outside the company.

Moral blindness due to routine

In addition to the emergence of cognitive frameworks, there is another cause of moral blindness, as I recently described in detail in an article with business ethicist Marcus Schulze: organizational routine (Combe and Schulze, 2022). Routines are (often) repetitive behaviors in organizations involving multiple people. Routine procedures (such as purchases, placing orders) can be formalized or informal.

Routine can contribute to moral blindness for two reasons. First, it is performed relatively automatically in “routine situations” (eg a new batch will be produced, the waste must be disposed of) without the need for decisions or agreements between actors as to whether and how the action should be taken. If the situation now contains an unethical component (eg human exploitation, environmental pollution), this may result in this aspect not being thought or talked about at all in the specific situation – the routine behavior is simply implemented. The second reason why routine can lead to moral blindness is that it involves multiple people who may not even have an overview of the general situation and thus the consequences of their behaviour. Many people may routinely (!) inadvertently and inadvertently contribute results that go against their own moral principles.

In our article on the potentially dangerous role of routine, we use the example of “racial profiling”, that is, the routine examination of people of different skin colors in police situations. Checking a particular person at a police checkpoint is not an unethical act. Groups of people are only systematically discriminated against through the routine, unthinking repetition of routine “racial profiling” acts. As another example, in the article we use annual procedures to determine a certain percentage (eg 5%) of the company’s “worst employees” who are subsequently fired (“forced distribution”). This method is often used in large companies (such as Amazon) and is considered by many managers as a suitable motivational tool. The fact that people are under great stress and may not find a new job after losing their jobs in such organizations is often overlooked.

Similar to cognitive frameworks, routines increase efficiency in everyday organizational life: members of the organization regularly carry out similar processes and are thus “well trained”. Coordination efforts are reduced and the quality of results remains stable. As long as no problems arise, the routine is rarely questioned and changed. As a result, the unethical aspects of the daily routine may go unnoticed for a long time. This is especially dangerous when the effects of a routine become visible only gradually.

Overcome moral blindness

Even if not all managerial misconduct can be traced back to moral blindness, the possibility that managers will inadvertently act unethically despite good intentions is almost never taken into account when it comes to the issue of corporate responsibility. Therefore, there is a risk that companies committed to social responsibility and environmental sustainability will “blind” a large number of unethical (routine) decisions and situations.

So how can companies protect themselves from moral blindness? First, it must be recognized that all human beings make their decisions based on cognitive frameworks. Then a targeted attempt can be made to avoid single-sided and solid tires. The important lever can be the selection of the members of the organization according to the aspects of diversity.

With regard to organizational red tape, it may be useful to look at current practices from an ethical perspective. With the help of focused thinking, unethical behavior can be identified and new processes started consciously. It may be necessary to (partially) change automated processes or modify evaluation criteria, guidelines and criteria to take into account the ethical requirements of the company.

In order to reduce moral blindness, it is important to understand that the people involved usually do not consciously act unethically (greedy, profit seekers, etc.). On the contrary, in many cases these are employees who care deeply about the success of the organisation. Measures to reduce and avoid moral blindness must therefore aim in the first place to bring the temporary “invisible” moral component of the situation back into awareness and bring it into focus.

in-depth reading:

Bazerman, M.H., & Tenbrunsel, A.E. (2011). blind spot. Why we fail to do the right thing and what to do about it. Princeton University Press.

Joya, DA (1992). Pinto fires and personal morals: a textual analysis of missed opportunities. Business Ethics JournalAnd 11379-389.

Comp, B, & Schulze, M (2022). Organizational red tape as a source of moral blindness. organization theoryAnd 31-24.

Palazzo, G., Krings, F., & Hoffrage, U. (2012). Moral blindness. Business Ethics JournalAnd 109 (3), 323-338.

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