Chester Spell

Chester S Spell Ph.D.

Team Spirit

The Ethics of Engineering

The devil made me do it!

Posted Aug 22, 2017

Decades ago comedian Flip Wilson originated the catch phrase “The devil made me do it!” This saying can remind us of the times you do something you know is wrong — and attribute the cause to circumstances. While it was funny at the time, Flip Wilson was on to something serious.

This is a common situation in organizations — how many times has someone made an unethical decision while being influenced by other people. The "devil" could be a pushy boss or the entire culture of the organization, co-workers, demanding customers or a host of other people or situations.

Recall, for instance, the Wells Fargo scandal where accounting fraud was attributed to pressure from upper management.  In fact, a recent analysis by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission estimates that in 75 percent of fraud cases the fraudulent behavior was committed in unison by two or more people.

Decisions with ethical implications are made everyday, and almost always more than one person is involved in one way or another. So, we decided to look at how groups shape our ethical choices. We used a sample of civil engineering student groups working on a toll highway project featuring real scenarios that project managers and engineers face in everyday situations.

We asked our future engineers to make decisions when facing ethical dilemmas where conflicts of interest occur between diverse project teams and stakeholders. These stakeholders can include other civil engineers, designers, contractors, public agencies and public users.  In one scenario, for instance, teams faced an ethical dilemma when they realized that choosing the shortest (and least expensive to build) highway route would also require relocating a homeless shelter (with no alternative shelter nearby).

Now the question became are there any factors that could help a group to make ethically desirable decisions in various dilemma situations? So we turned to diversity faultlines (splits in groups into factions) since we’ve learned from past work how important they are for group processes. In other words, would a group that split into subgroups be more (or less) likely to make an ethical decision?

Groups with faultlines, as one might expect, have more conflict, but that conflict isn’t always bad or counterproductive. One of us worked as an engineer in such a split group in their first job out of college and boy were there conflicts (!), but indeed it was generally about the job and how to do it and rarely got personal.

Why is some conflict in a faultine group good, and what does it have to do with ethical decisions? We know that groups with differing viewpoints of the task are able to develop alternative means of seeking information, interpret information in different ways, and engage in more nuanced cognitive processing and group discussion. This process, then, may lead the group to better understand the ethical implications of the dilemma situations, and become more morally aware. Thus conflict can help them think through what they are doing, increasing the chance that a more ethical path would be taken.

Indeed, of the 33 engineering groups we studied, the ones with faultlines had the most conflict. Also, after scoring each of the scenarios and the decisions the groups made on a scale of more ethical to least ethical, groups with faultlines made decisions that were more ethical as well. We also measured the level of cohesion in the groups by asking groups how satisfied they were in the group, how cooperative their teams were, etc. Groups where cohesion was high accelerated this ethical decision making process.

In our "scandal-a-day" culture it is important to understand how decisions are made.  Even more important is to take into account the role of other people in ethically sensitive decisions that may only appear to come from one person.

Our sample of civil engineering teams is especially critical given the hard ethical challenges in designing, planning and building critically needed infrastructure projects. Since rebuilding and maintaining the infrastructure is a social need that will be with us indefinitely, looking at how we make decisions that do the most good with the least harm becomes pretty darn important. 

Written by Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova

This study has been conducted with our colleagues Hisham Said of Santa Clara University, Denise Loyd and Jihyeon Kim at Illinois, and Ernie Wang at University at Buffalo and was just presented at the INGRoup conference in St. Louis.