In doing this, I am unable to deny the fundamental principle that not only the behaviours, but the thoughts and feelings of individuals are influenced by the presence of others, and social norms, whether it is those that exist in a particular workplace, or society more generally.
That is why social psychologist Dolly Chugh’s Ted Talk titled How to let go of being a “good” person – and become a better person captured my imagination. Chugh begins by explaining that we care deeply about feeling liked, and being seen as “good” and if that identity is challenged, we go into “red-zone defensiveness”.
Chugh then explains her research on “bounded ethicality” whereby the human mind is bounded by its ability to consciously process around 40 pieces of information from the 11 million pieces of information coming in at any one time. The mind therefore has to rely on shortcuts, or unconscious biases, to organise information.
This is where I think it becomes interesting: Most of the time, our good person identity is not challenged, whether by ourselves or others, meaning we think less and less about our unconscious biases and the ethical implications of our behaviour and, in turn, we are “spiralling” towards less and less ethical behaviour.
Chugh’s view is that it may be because the definition of a good person is either-or and we are leaving no room to learn from our mistakes. As she explains, if you “needed to learn accounting, you would take an accounting class…we talk to experts, we learn from our mistakes, we update our knowledge, we just keep getting better”.
Having advised on countless grievances, disciplinaries and acts of discrimination in the workplace, the idea of letting go of being a good person and instead aiming for being a better person really struck a chord with me.
After all, it appears to be supported by the research and my own view is that we tend to think in extremes – someone or something is either really good or really bad and the grey area of being not quite so good, but not so bad is often overlooked or forgotten about.
When a “really bad” scenario presents itself in the workplace, it is instantly recognisable, the correct policy is identified and applied and while the person complained about might rush to their red-zone defensiveness, their behaviour is often indefensible and the employer decides that they can become a better person on some other employer’s time.
However, where a scenario falls within the grey area, the same cannot always be said. For example, an employee with a disabled child is not offered the chance to take on more responsibilities at work because the manager equates extra responsibility with extra stress and therefore the opportunity would not be welcomed by the employee.
While we would all accept that there is no place for discrimination in the workplace, we can perhaps accept that the manager in this case was not acting maliciously – rather, he was trying, however misguidedly, to help the employee.
To my mind, this is where most anti-bullying, harassment and discrimination training that is conducted in the workplace falls down. It does not address the grey areas. Accordingly, unethical behaviour is left unchallenged, denying individuals the chance to learn from their mistakes, until the “not so bad” behaviours become really bad with very real and harmful consequences for the individuals concerned.
Let’s be brutally honest about this, there are also real and harmful consequences for the employer, ranging from expensive employment tribunal claims to reputational damage.
I accept that such training cannot cover every possible example of grey behaviour, and individuals cannot expect to make mistakes without there being any consequences, but I do believe that employers need to accept that, like perfection, a “good person” does not exist and action should be taken to encourage improvement in individuals’ behaviours if it wishes to minimise the impact felt by leaving certain behaviours unchecked.
Donna Reynolds is a Partner at Blackadders