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Why don’t people intervene when they see unethical conduct?

Getting daily exercise, eating healthy, using dental floss – there are many things we all know we should be doing – yet we still struggle to do them. Behavioral science calls it the intention-action gap – when we have every intention of doing something (and we know why we should be doing it), yet this rarely translates into actual behavior.

In the same vein, if asked, many (if not all) of us would say they would actively intervene when confronted with unethical conduct – but in reality, most won’t

Consider a recent survey conducted among the employees of a large Australian bank. When asked whether it was right to tell people who were breaching the physical distancing rule at the building entry to space out, most employees agreed. However, when asked whether they would take action, many stated they were unlikely or even very unlikely to do so. 

The intention-action gap and the resulting bystander inaction appear to be closely connected to speak-up culture and whistleblowing. When normalized, these two can be the key reasons why employees remain silent when others are not following rules. 

Several processes have been used to explain why individuals don’t follow through with their intentions. In 1970 two psychologists, Latané & Darley, developed the most influential 5-step decision-making model to bystander intervening – together with the potential psychological barriers associated with each step.

Adapted to the corporate scenario, these barriers for employees to blow a whistle would include the following:

  • Failure to notice an event due to limited time, distractions, self-focus, and self-interest driven by selfish orientation prevailing in organizational culture.
  • Failure to identify a situation as intervention appropriate due to problems with identifying what constitutes misconduct, lack of knowledge, or social influence, where an individual sees the passive response of others as a sign that the situation may not be as serious as they perceive it to be. 
  • Failure to take responsibility due to diffusion of responsibility in case there are other bystanders present or personal obstacles like lack of confidence to raise a voice.
  • Failure to intervene due to skills deficit: not knowing about the hotline and how to use it.
  • Failure to intervene due to audience inhibition: weak speak-up culture, internal “norms” running counter to intervention, a desire to maintain the identity with the group (i.e., with the rest of the organization), not wanting to “overreact” and be embarrassed.

To overcome the intention-action gap, employees need to see raising concerns as a normalized and common behavior. Some of the ideas include shifting the “internal” social norms and drawing on how many people have already raised their concerns when confronted with unethical conduct.

That said, it is also critical to continue with the capacity-building efforts through training programs – and when you measure their effectiveness, make sure to account for the intention-action gap. Because changed intentions do not always mean changed actions, as we have just seen.

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1 Comment

  1. Vera – You have addressed one of the great challenges for all organizations – getting people to speak up. We should never underestimate how difficult that is. One important step is to go out into the field and ask people. While many will not report a violation, they will tell the truth when asked. It is also important to publicize reports of actions taken as a result of reports. And if you REALLY believe in this and have some courage, why not recruit a whistleblower for a job at your organization? That will show that you are really committed to speaking up.

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