Do Good Deeds Make People Act Bad?

When People Do Something ‘Good’ They Feel Licensed to Do Something ‘Bad’ Later

Ethical moral self-licensing » When People Do Something 'Good' They Feel Licensed to Do Something 'Bad' Later Being—and being seen—as moral, ethical, and principled is an important part of people’s self-concept.

Social psychologists have studied the tendency of people using their prior moral actions to license future morally questionable actions. According to these studies, prior to making morally important decisions, people may survey their previous moral actions. If they recollect engaging in virtuous moral behavior in the past, they may subsequently become less bothered about engaging in morally questionable behavior.

Prior Actions Can Affect Individuals’ Future Behavior

Past good deeds can license people to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, if not problematic—behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral. The deep-seated human tendency that makes people feel entitled to do something less moral because they’ve done something moral previously is called “moral self-licensing.”

Psychologists reason that people’s previous actions may cause them to feel more self-possessed in their own moral self-worth. As a result, this claim licenses their choice of a more self-indulgent moral choice.

Conversely, when people appear immoral or devious to others, they subsequently take up positive actions to restore their moral image. Psychologists identify this as “compensation or cleansing.”

When ‘Good’ Behavior Supposedly Counteracts Doing Something ‘Bad’

Moral self-licensing has been demonstrated in several realms of human judgment. However, in my opinion, much of the cause-and-effect narratives seem ambiguous. For instance,

  • In a set of pioneering studies, participants who established their racial non-prejudiced attitudes by endorsing President Obama or through selecting a black person for a consulting firm job were subsequently more likely to make pro-white decisions.
  • In one test, after subjects were given a chance to condemn sexist statements, they were found to be subsequently more likely to support hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.
  • One study on consumer behavior suggested that shoppers who brought their own bags felt licensed to buy more junk food.

Contribution Ethic and “Prospective Moral Licensing”

A phenomenon related to moral self-licensing is “contribution ethic” or the “moral credential effect.” When people feel they’ve done their fair share for some noble cause, they decide they need do no more. In one study, after people participated in a pro-social deeds (e.g., doing something good for the cause of the environment,) they felt licensed to behave more selfishly later (e.g., donating less to an environmental program). Another study showed that people who drive hybrid cars tend to get more tickets and cause more accidents than do drivers of conventional cars.

Some studies have suggested that just thinking about past moral behavior or writing about oneself as a moral person can decrease the likelihood of subsequently performing altruistic acts—such as decreasing contributions to charitable causes or being less engaging in cooperative behavior towards friends and colleagues.

Finally, simply planning to do good later can allow people to be bad now. Some studies suggest that when people merely plan to engage in a moral behavior in the future, they feel licensed to respond in a morally questionable way in the present. Psychologists identify this as “prospective moral licensing.”

Idea for Impact: Past Moral Deeds Could Make People Do Morally Wrong Things

Part of becoming wise to the ways of the world and getting along with people is understanding the many peculiarities of human behavior. Learning why people feel licensed to engage in potentially immoral behavior given their demonstrated moral behavior allows for a better understanding of the world in which we live.

Five Signs of Excessive Confidence

Five Signs of Excessive Confidence Confidence is generally a respectable and necessary workplace trait.

However, there is a darker side to confidence.

People who display overconfidence, hubris, and narcissism engage in self-destructive behaviors at work because their self-aggrandizement blinds them from their personal judgment and their managerial and leadership performance.

If you believe you may be displaying any of the following signs of excessive confidence, you need some coaching and feedback. Ask a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor for some honest feedback. Work to change your attitude—promptly.

  1. You tend to believe that your ideas are the only ones worth acting on. When others contribute ideas and suggestions, you tend to turn them off while promoting only the ideas that you come up with. You tend to get angry with others for their unwise and impractical suggestions. You are resistant to learning from others or from previous experiences.
  2. You tend to act on solutions without input from others. You believe that it is up to only you to supply new ideas and solve problems. You are convinced that you are the only one who knows as much as necessary to do the right thing. When others summon up ideas and suggest watch-outs, you tend to brush them off with “I know that” statements.
  3. 'What Got You Here Wont Get You There' by Marshall Goldsmith (ISBN 1401301304) You tend to express an opinion on everything—even when the topic of interest is outside your area of expertise. You act as if you’ve accepted the reality that you have to work with less-qualified people who just can’t get the right things the right way (i.e. your way.) If only your opinions were considered and if you had your way, your team and company would do “so much better.”
  4. You tend to defend your mistakes and your failures. You don’t recognize your limitations and the mistakes of your ways. You can’t take help. You are closed off to others’ feedback and suggestions for change.
  5. You tend to externalize blame. You’re often a victim of everyone else’s failures or a victim of external circumstances. You gripe that others just don’t understand you or they aren’t qualified enough to see the wisdom of your ways.

If you can’t recognize and accept the problems related to how your behavior comes across to other people, you may be derailing your managerial and leadership potential.

Idea for Impact: Greatness lies in balancing self-assurance with self-effacement. I recommend leadership coach extraordinaire Marshall Goldsmith‘s outstanding What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Addressing already-successful people, Goldsmith describes how personality traits that bring you initial career success could hold you back from going further!

The Cost of Leadership Incivility


Steve Jobs’ Misguided Advice for Being a Good CEO: “Throw Tantrums!”

Indra Nooyi got Advice from Steve Jobs: Throw Tantrums

When Indra Nooyi became CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she met with Steve Jobs, the famously driven but short-tempered and ruthless leader of Apple. One advice Jobs had for Nooyi on being a good leader: “throw tantrums.”

During this 2016 interview at the Stanford Business School (YouTube video), Nooyi acknowledged Job’s advice as “a valuable lesson.” She elaborated that Jobs advised, “don’t be too nice … when you really don’t get what you want and you really believe that’s the right thing for the company, it’s OK to throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around. People will talk about it, and they’ll know it’s important for you.”

During another 2016 interview, at the New York Times’ DealBook Conference (YouTube video), Nooyi recalled Jobs advise again. “If you really feel strongly about something—if you don’t like something people are doing—throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around, because people have got to know that you feel strongly about it.” Though Nooyi hasn’t gone as far as to throw things around, she disclosed, “I’m beginning to use certain words a little bit more freely and I am screaming a bit more, pounding the table … which is really not the way I was … it is effective. It shows the passion that I have for what I’m doing.”

No Need to Ape the Style of the Icon-of-The-Moment

Leadership Throw TantrumsPeople will go to extraordinary lengths for causes they believe in. Nonetheless, this advice of throwing tantrums and using “certain words a little bit more freely” to express passion is abhorrently misguided, even if it worked for Steve Jobs and Indra Nooyi!

The ultimate impact of a leader hinges on his/her enthusiasm to make the organization’s endeavors personal, to engage others openly, and to draw attention to successes as they emerge. For that reason, Nooyi’s anecdote is demonstrative of Jobs’ passion for building great products.

My primary protestation relates to the reality that leaders model the behavior they want in their organizations. Admissibly, there may be a time and a place to throw temper tantrums at Apple, PepsiCo, or at your organization. However, unchecked and unhindered outbursts of passion, and cursing and incivility are certainly counterproductive.

Steve Jobs could throw temper tantrums because he could! As I have written in previous articles, brilliant men and women can get away with fanatical pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Aggressive—and successful—managers and leaders can pressurize, scream, intimidate, and even terrorize their employees. They vindicate that their offensive behavior works because they “deliver the numbers.” Others rationalize their behavior by exclaiming, “Yeah, he’s tough on his people, but judge his abrasiveness in the context of everything he’s achieved.”

The Leader Sets the Tone for Workplace Culture

Workplace incivility can take many subtle forms and it is often provoked by thoughtlessness more willingly than by actual malice. A leader’s behavior tells employees what counts—and what’s rewarded and what’s punished. Leaders are role models. Therefore, others pay attention to everything they say and every move they make.

The tone at the top is the foundation upon which the culture of an organization is built. A leader is the face of an organization and the figurehead to whom employees ultimately look for vision, guidance, and leadership. When leaders throw temper tantrums, swear, or engage in appalling behavior, the message they convey within their organizations is that such behavior is acceptable.

The human brain is wired to learn by imitation. For instance, a child is wired to mimic the behaviors of higher status individuals like parents and teachers. Similarly, adults emulate the behaviors of those they deem of higher status—employees look at their boss to determine how to behave in the organization and what it takes to be promoted. In competitive work environments of the modern day, when employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, they’re likely to follow suit.

'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 1501127624) Postscript: Don’t blatantly imitate a hero. Those of you who worship Steve Jobs had better perceive his operative style as an anomaly rather than as a model of leadership worth imitating. Simply lifting his methods from anecdotes such as Indra Nooyi’s and the Walter Isaacson biography and imposing them on your employees will not necessarily yield Jobs-like results. As I’ve written previously, the career advice that works for the superstars is not necessarily what will work for most ordinary folks. So, don’t be misled by their “it worked for me” advice.

When Should a Leader Pass Blame?

When Should a Leader Pass Blame? A leader is the “captain of the ship.” He is responsible for his organization’s every outcome—good or bad. He is wholly accountable for everything that happens under his authority.

If there is a problem caused by his mistakes or errors within his organization, a leader should not shirk responsibility. He should not abandon his team if things go wrong, nor should he pass the blame or use an employee as a scapegoat.

However, a leader cannot see and touch all his people, especially if his organization is large. He cannot be personally responsible for a rogue employee who steals information, misuses funds, or engages in unethical behavior. In such circumstances, the leader may pass blame.

Although a leader cannot police every action taken by every employee, the leader should be held accountable for not instituting and overseeing a rigorous control system to prevent problems, deter unethical actions, and to identify employees that engage in such behavior.

A leader also sets the tone for all his employees—not only in terms of goals and priorities but also in terms of proper organizational behavior. A legendary case in point are the ethical rules that investor Warren Buffett set in his company after the 1991 bond-rigging scandal at Salomon Brothers: “I want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper, to be read by their spouses, children, and friends, with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter. If they follow this test, they need not fear my other message to them: Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.” Even now, Buffett includes this statement in his biannual letters to his managers and displays a video of this speech at every Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.

Warren Buffett’s Rule of Thumb on Personal Integrity

Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway On occasion, personal integrity and ethical conduct can be challenging. Greed, selfishness, distrust and other inclinations can result in misrepresentations, deliberate omission of facts to throw a positive spin on things, purposeful oversight, misuse of information and self-interested behavior.

Warren Buffett, one of the world’s most successful investors and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, directs that all his employees follow this rule of ethics in every undertaking.

“… I want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper — to be read by their spouses, children and friends — with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter.”

The key to personal integrity is to gather all the relevant data, define the “right thing,” exercise prudence and standup for what is right. Good intentions do not necessarily translate to action. Your thoughts and actions define your credibility at work and in the society.

Credit: Warren Buffett’s picture courtesy of user ‘trackrecord’ on flickr.com