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5 reasons why good staff do bad things and how to design them out of your organisation

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Everybody cheats[i]. Most people cheat in small ways – a forbidden snack on a diet, repurposing pens from the stationary cupboard, or using Google to get the answer during a pub quiz. Cheating can make us feel really good: when we cheat the system and beat the 'powers that be', we feel a win. But cheating over time can eventually lead us to see ourselves as lost causes, with no hope of redemption. Somewhere between 'good person who cheats' and 'bad person who lies' is the tipping point where good staff can become harmful actors in your organisation. In this blog, we explore how that can happen, and what you can do to prevent it.

For centuries good people have done bad things in the name of public service. There have been some infamous incidents of how people in caring professions have done incredible harm. One of the most renowned examples of this was the role of doctors in the Holocaust; a profession dedicated to healing that came to facilitate the deaths of millions of people during the Nazi reign in Germany. And closer to home, there have been repeated concerns around harm caused during the care of vulnerable people. The reviews of practices at Winterbourne View (Department of Health Review 2012) and the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust (Francis Report 2013) demonstrated how easily medical services can become abusive institutions.

Psychologists, behaviouralists and ethics researchers have spent decades seeking to understand how good people committed to public service come to do significant harm. Here are five key findings from that research, and what organisations can do to prevent them:

1. Nobel Cause Corruption

'The ends justify the means': noble cause corruption is the name given to behaviours in policing where the prevention of harm or the apprehension of criminals is justification enough to subvert the rules that legitimise legal systems[ii]. Behaviours caused by noble cause corruption include planting or concealing evidence, use of excessive force or collusion between officers to provide false witness statements.

Research highlights this type of behaviour in policing due to the scrutiny and oversight used to prevent police corruption, but it is transferrable to other public services too. Some of the environmental issues that can enable noble cause corruption are officers believing they won't get caught, officers believing they won't be penalised and an organisational culture that values outcomes over integrity[iii].

2. Perverse Performance Incentives

Performance management is intended to get the best out of staff, yet it has been proven time and time again that many performance targets and incentives have the opposite effect. Performance gaming[iv] is a well-known behaviour where staff manipulate loopholes, mis-interpret instructions or engage in outright dishonesty in order to meet performance targets, so that they appear to be performing well and avoid punitive action.

Research has shown that a corporate focus on outcome targets, setting unachievable targets and having excessive targets can all lead to performance measures becoming performance inhibitors and incentivising dishonest behaviour[v]. This is problematic in organisations designed to provide care and public services because the attention moves from the quality of service to recording of data. The focus on data recording inhibits empathy, professional judgement and ethical care which can be fundamentally harmful for service users, families and staff themselves.

3. Destructive Obedience

The famous Milgram experiments were both controversial and incredibly informative about the relationship between authoritative instruction and individual moral judgments. Research subjects were instructed to give increasingly harmful electric shocks to a distressed actor under the direction of an authority figure, until eventually lethal force was used. The experiment found that the majority of people would issue lethal force when instructed to do so by a person in authority[vi]. It is one of the most renowned psychological experiments because of the shocking results and how consistent the outcomes were when the experiment was repeated. The experiment was also found to have a profound negative effect on the psyche of participants[vii].

Milgram's experiments are incredibly important when it comes to understanding how good people in public service environment can do bad things if they consider themselves to have been instructed to do so by a figure of authority. In hierarchical, or authoritative structures, this raises the question of what to do about unethical leadership, since instruction to undertake immoral or harmful tasks can override an individual’s own moral decision making.

4. The effect of One Bad Apple

One bad apple spoils the barrel, or at least that's how the saying goes. Research into team dynamics suggests that largely this is true[viii]. A variety of studies into the behaviour of groups when a bad apple was introduced show that a single member of a team can have a significant impact on team behaviour. Common effects were withdrawal of effort by other team members, a reduction in the level of cooperation across the whole team and the increased likelihood of team members to cover up the bad apple’s behaviour[ix]. Interestingly, the introduction of a good apple to a team may well increase cooperation and positive outcomes, but not to the same degree as the negative influence of a bad one.

The perception of ‘bad apples’ as being individual actors is problematic for organisations that provide public services, such as the suggestion that bad apples in police forces are the cause for racial violence. This assumption contradicts the research which demonstrates the enabling behaviour of staff members around bad apples that can become a team-wide, or even systemic, issue[x]. In organisations where ethical behaviour, transparency and quality of service is central to prevention of harm to the public, this is an important finding. Research would suggest that organisations that do not attempt to address bad apples create a culture of implicit permission for harmful behaviour and an osmosis of bad behaviour into the whole staff ‘barrel’.

5. Moral Erosion

Most of us, most of the time, consider ourselves to be fundamentally good. Most of us, most of the time, can also rationalise our cheating or deceptive behaviour against the fact that generally we're good people with good intentions. However, there's a point at which after continued repeated small cheats, the human mind can't rationalise itself as being fundamentally good anymore. This moment is called the “what the hell” effect[xi], where the individual considers themselves to have cheated in so many small ways that it makes little difference to their identity whether they do good or bad in the future.

The significance of this change from fundamentally good but cheats little bit, to an irredeemable cheater has been used to explain examples of good staff becoming corrupt and morally compromised. This might be the difference between a police officer rarely acting on opportunities to thwart processes in minor ways and repeatedly seeking opportunities to compromise evidence that would secure convictions; or in mental health, could be the difference between a mental health practitioner using excessive restrictive practises out of frustration and exhaustion in exceptional circumstances, to defaulting to restrictive practises that use excessive force whenever the possibility arises[xii].

Organisational Impact

In the worst of cases, all of these things are ingrained in organisational culture and occur simultaneously. A combination of noble cause corruption, perverse incentives in performance management, immoral authoritarian direction, unattended bad apples and/or staff identifying as intrinsically bad can cause a whole organisation to suffer moral erosion – where the organisation itself is seen as irredeemable and all staff, including those who still consider themselves good and ethical, ‘check out’ of organisational procedures designed to uphold integrity and organisational values[xiii].

Leaders in public services need to pay attention to their responsibilities to prevent these cultures. General leadership training often fails to address the inherent risks of moral compromise in public service, focussing often on inspirational leadership styles from other sectors. What results is lots of information about what leaders should be trying to achieve through staff motivation, without addressing the key pitfalls in moral and ethical behaviour that are prevalent in public service professions. For leaders in public service, whichever leadership approach is used, they must address antidotes to the environments that result in staff compromising their morality.

5 important tools for improving integrity and ethics

Research has shown that robust accountability and values-based behaviours can reduce moral compromise in public service organisations. Here's our top tips on how to support ethical choices and prevent immoral behaviour in your service-focussed organisation.

1. Organisational justice

Fundamental to ethical performance by staff members are perceptions of effective and fair organisational justice[xiv]. This means:

  • The organisation is clear about what is good behaviour and what is bad behaviour.

  • The organisation can identify good behaviour and bad behaviour.

  • The organisational takes action to reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour.

  • Staff trust that the organisation will impart justice that is fair, transparent and in line with its values.

Organisational justice provides the framework against which staff self-regulate their moral behaviour. In an organisation with fair, transparent and values-based internal justice procedures, the majority of staff will choose to do the right thing most of the time – but, more importantly, will almost always choose to do the right thing when it counts[xv]. The 'right thing' in these circumstances is dictated by the core values and expectations of quality outlined by your organisational strategy and priorities.

2. Values-Based Performance Management

Values based performance management is a performance management system that rewards behaviour not outcomes[xvi]. For example, a focus on victims being satisfied with the service they have received by the police is a much better incentive for police performance than crime recording targets, response times or detection rates. Equally, in healthcare, it has been repeatedly proven that values-based metrics that focus on patient experiences of compassionate care are a much better driver of compassionate and good quality nursing than targets related to infection control, medication management or professional compliance. Generally, staff know what they should be doing from a professional perspective, but reminding them of the values that underpin 'why' they are doing it is what makes them do it well.

3. Protecting Emotional and Mental Energy

Resisting unethical behaviour requires significant cognitive effort[xvii]. In order for staff to be able to resist shortcuts or the advantages of perverse behaviours, staff need the cognitive energy to make good decisions. Cognitive energy in the workplace is reinforced by a combination of staff considering their work meaningful, having the autonomy to make decisions and having the certainty of an ethical, legal and regulatory framework that sets the boundaries for good quality work[xviii]. Emotional and mental energy can be conserved by supportive organisational practices and replenished by regular breaks throughout the working day. Organisations that pay attention to staff wellbeing and empower their staff to use professional judgment wisely are more likely to have staff that have the emotional and cognitive energy to consistently make ethical choices.

4. Trustworthiness

Organisations that struggle most with disengaged staff and unethical behaviour are those who do not model trustworthiness as valuable, and so do not hold their staff’s trust[xix]. Trustworthiness breeds loyalty, and loyalty engenders commitment to values and quality. If staff are to be trusted to act with integrity when unobserved, an organisation must create a culture of loyalty through trustworthy leadership.

Trust cannot be elicited; it must be freely given. Brene Brown[xx] highlights seven core areas of trust in her extensive research into human experience that leaders can be encouraged to reflect on and utilise as a guide professional development:

  1. Boundaries

  2. Reliability

  3. Accountability

  4. Vault

  5. Integrity

  6. Nonjudgment

  7. Generosity

5. Opportunities to ‘Start a New Page’

Confession, apology, forgiveness and atonement are moral cleansers[xxi]. Organisations with blame cultures, bullying cultures or unsafe speaking up processes prevent the moral cleansers that enable people to ‘start a new page’ and release themselves from cheater/bad person identities[xxii]. When bad behaviour becomes so deeply engrained through a ‘what the hell’ transformation, moral cleansers are important parts of disciplinary processes that release moral integrity for second chances. This includes enabling dismissed staff to move forward into new workplaces with a sense of the possibility that they can do better next time.

Organisations can integrate opportunities for confession, apology and atonement across their policies and procedures through a range of different initiatives that have been tried and tested internationally, such as restorative justice. In organisations where iatrogenic harm is a common unintended consequence of staff decision making, these systems are imperative to prevent staff from normalising themselves as harmful actors.

Good staff are the backbone of a great organisation, and they all have one thing in common: they're all human. Humans are fallible and make mistakes. Staff need an employer they can be proud of if they're going to come home at the end of the work day feeling good about themselves and what they do. By building an organisation that has clear boundaries, strong values and is respectful towards its staff, employers can create a framework that enables good staff do to great things.

Peer Hub Consultancy

Peer Hub CIC can provide an in depth analysis of your individual circumstance to direct a strategic plan that will embed moral integrity in your organisation. To discuss possibilities of commissioning Peer Hub’s culture or organisational change consultancy services.

Contact us to book a one hour free introductory meeting.

[Principles of moral integrity are integrated into all our trainings for service design, strategy and professional practice.]

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