Overcoming Factors That Lead to Unethical Decisions

By Dawna Jones

Although some business decision-makers are unscrupulous, most don’t start out with the intention to make unethical decisions, but they make them nonetheless. So if the problem isn’t intent, what is it? Unethical decisions can be a consequence of skewed or narrow thinking, on-the-job pressures, and other factors that you probably don’t realize set the stage for ethical transgressions.

Having too narrow a focus

When the focus is too narrow, you pay more attention to the short term rather than the long term, or you’re more committed to meeting financial goals than delighting your customers.

Seeing the big picture is an integral part of making ethical decisions. When you step back, you gain new and wider perspective that can reveal patterns that you may not have noticed before. This broader perspective enables you to see connections between what before may have seemed to be unrelated entities and, as a result, consider the far-reaching implications of your decisions.

You can also see familiar patterns that may indicate that your decision-making is going around in circles and not really producing the change or benefit you were hoping for.

Not linking your decisions to your values

Ethical decision-making is rooted in the capacity to anchor decision-making to your values. Doing so lets you know what’s important when things seem uncertain, and it gives you a standard by which to judge the outcome of the decisions you make. Values-based decision-making is different from decision-making based on beliefs or assumptions.

Succumbing to workplace pressures

When intense pressure to achieve targets exists, people are tempted to take shortcuts that can compromise standards. To counter this, step back to discover the source of the pressure and identify where knee-jerk reactions to demands have hijacked a more intentional approach to decision-making.

Also try to balance short-term thinking with long-term vision and goals. When you include the long term in your decision-making, you tend to make better decisions because you’re applying a broader perspective to the problem.

Making assumptions

When the information underpinning the decision is too limited, you find yourself making assumptions. To counter this tendency, engage customers and employees as active participants in your company’s decision-making. Doing so broadens the information available for decision-making.

As a bonus, it also bolsters your company’s value because of the loyal and committed relationships you develop. In addition, making information available and transparent within the company reduces the inclination to make assumptions or act on speculation.

Using the wrong metrics to judge success

The criteria you use to evaluate success has a direct bearing on what you and your employees pay attention to. Yet as important as it is to measure the right things, many managers and companies unwittingly use metrics that measure the wrong things, are at odds with the company’s stated mission, and, in the worst cases, foster unethical behavior.

If, for example, you reward employees only for making budget targets, they may postpone or avoid doing things like updating equipment for safety — a decision that could lead to injuries or death.

To determine whether the metrics you’ve put in place are creating an environment that promotes breaches of ethics, monitor the consequences of decisions. One way is to map key decisions so that you can see the results and consequences. By taking this step proactively, you’ll be able to correct a course of action before it’s too late.