Why one small ethical slip can snowball into major violations over time if left unchecked is explained in a new study by a team of business professors.
How unethical behavior unfolds over time was studied for the first time by David Welsh of the University of Washington, Lisa Ordóñez of the University of Arizona, Deirdre Snyder of Providence College and Michael Christian of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Our results provide the first empirical evidence about how committing small ethical indiscretions over time can lead to larger infractions,” said Welsh.
Small, unethical actions might seem innocuous. “People rationalize their behavior to justify it,” said Ordóñez. They might think ‘No one got hurt’ or ‘Everyone does it.’ The next time they feel fine about doing something a little bit worse the next time and then commit more severe unethical actions.”
“Because of this rationalization process – what we call moral disengagement – people are more likely to slip into a pattern of behavior,” said Snyder. “We call this the slippery-slope effect.”
A paradox exists. “Unethical behavior is widespread, but most people think of themselves as moral, ethical people,” said Christian, an organizational behavior professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.
“We looked at what motivates people who are otherwise good to do increasingly bad things. The slippery-slope effect is personified by Bernie Madoff, who in 2009 described it to Vanity Fair this way: ‘Well, you know what happens is, it starts out with you taking a little bit, maybe a few hundred, a few thousand. You get comfortable with that, and before you know it, it snowballs into something big.’”
The researchers used three different tasks across four studies to measure unethical behavior at multiple points in time to uncover the process by which the slippery-slope effect occurs.
They found that:
To stem the slide, a business leader can:
The Journal of Applied Psychology published their findings, “The Slippery Slope: How Small Ethical Transgressions Pave the Way for Larger Future Transgressions.”