Panel Discussion: Why Do Leaders Act Unethically?

The inaugural panel discussion for the UVA Leadership Working Group brought two thought-provoking speakers to the Batten School to talk about ethics and leadership. The Batten School’s Professor Benjamin Converse moderated the discussion. The first speaker was one of UVA’s own R. Edward Freeman, an Olsson Professor of Business Administration in the Darden School of Business. The second speaker was Max H. Bazerman, a Straus Professor of Business Administration in the Harvard Business School. Both speakers brought a different perspective of ethics – philosophical and psychological.

Professor Freeman questioned what defines the ethics we as individuals hold. For many, our philosophical beliefs shape how we define ethical behavior. He continued by pointing to the fact the ethics than an individual follows may allow him to sleep at night may indeed cause the rest of us nightmares. It is through these different lenses of ethical views that we judge leaders. However, we need to realize that many individuals can become enmeshed in situations that do not allow for ethical decisions. Therefore, the situation plays a greater role in ethical behavior than we ascribe to it.

Professor Bazerman brought us the ethics of leadership from the psychological standpoint discussed in Blind Spot: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, a book he co-authored with Ann E. Tenbrunsel. Bazerman agreed with Freeman that many people would characterize themselves as ethical. However, this characterization breaks down when individuals make decisions for “the business.” He called this ethical fading. Bazerman gave three organizational examples of how the strong desire to maintain the status quo can lead to initiatives that encourage unethical behavior through inaction. He believes that the field of psychology can be used to help shortcut the need to accept the status quo.

– Post by Ammy George, MPP’13

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