Ethics and Trust: An Interview with Robert Hoyk

HoykIn 2009, Charles H. Green interviewed Robert Hoyk, co-author with Paul Hersey of a book that I highly admire: The Ethical Executive: Becoming Aware of the Root Causes of Unethical Behavior. After reading it, Green observes, “What grabbed me was their idea that ethics is usually considered a philosophical issue, but the management application of ethics is largely a matter of psychology. The Ethical Executive lists 45 psychological Traps that drive people to behave unethically.” The challenge is to understand the root causes of unethical behavior and then address them, rather than respond only to symptoms.

Following is a brief excerpt from Green’s interview with Hoyk who, sadly, lost his lengthy and courageous struggle with ALS on March 19, 2012. He was 60 and still at work on another book.

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First, you have three categories of Traps—Primary, Defensive, and Personality. Can you explain them?

Primary Traps directly drive people to behave unethically. These are the main traps that pull us in, that provoke us or trick us into illegal or unethical transgression.

An example of a Primary Trap is Power. The more the powerholder uses his power, the more he attributes the successes of his employees to his own leadership (“My orders and influence caused the workers to perform effectively”); Over time, the more the powerholder attributes the success of his employees to his own leadership, the more he begins to devalue his employees. (“It was my success! Not theirs! They were just following orders.”)

Defensive Traps are attempts to find easy ways to reverse course after a transgression has already been committed. They are reactions to two internal stimuli: guilt and shame. Guilt and especially shame are very painful emotions. They call into question the positive view we have of ourselves.

Defensive Traps are insidious because they annihilate or at least minimize √ our guilt and shame. They help us deny our transgressions, thus setting us up for repeated unethical behavior.

An example of a Defensive Trap is Advantageous Comparison. Advantageous Comparison allows the individual who has committed an unethical transgression to lessen his guilt by comparing what he has done to something worse.

For example, “Damaging some property is no big deal when you consider that others are beating people up.”

Personality Traps are personal traits that can make us more vulnerable to wrongdoing.

An example is Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). SDO is a trait that delineates one’s “preference for inequality among social groups.” It is the wish that the groups and organizations you belong to (business teams, corporation, social class, gender, ethnicity, country, and so on) be “superior” and “dominate.” SDO can be measured by a questionnaire that has been developed by Felicia Pratto and her colleagues at Stanford University.

What makes your approach to ethics different from others? What does this psychological approach reveal that other approaches might not?

Most approaches to ethics are philosophical. Philosophical ethics is important because it tells us what the right action is given different situations. But there’s a problem. Even if we know what the right thing to do is, we often don’t do it. Why? We often fall prey to psychological traps. Morality will improve to a great extent when ethics is integrated with psychology. Ethics will continue its crucial job of advising us what the right behavior is and psychology will motivate us to do the right thing and help us stop our transgressions.

In philosophy, this is what’s called the problem of incontinence: how to explain knowing the right thing to do, yet not doing it.

The Ethical Executive places a major focus on the root causes of unethical behavior—psychological dynamics. It inaugurates a new priority in the field that will lead to a clearer vista and fresh solutions.

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To read the complete interview and learn more about Charles Green, please click here.

To learn more about Robert Hoyk and his work, please click here.

Stanford University Press link

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