Doing the Right Thing

Doing the right thing is not easy.

Posted Apr 02, 2010

Positive psychology should study doing the right thing. All too often, this is not the focus of research. Rather, studies look at what makes people happy, healthy, or wealthy. Sometimes the right thing produces none of these wonderful outcomes. But the right thing remains the right thing.

It was therefore with interest that I read a recent literature review by Jennifer Kish-Gephart and colleagues (2010) about the determinants of doing the wrong thing - lying, cheating, stealing - in the workplace. The article had a great title - "Bad apples, bad cases, and bad barrels" - and I am a sucker for great titles. The review was a meta-analysis of 170 different studies of unethical decisions at work and was organized under the rubric captured by the title: bad apples (characteristics of the individual), bad barrels (characteristics of the workplace), and bad cases (characteristics of the issue).

Guess what? They all matter, and none carries the burden of explaining the bad things that people do at work. Said another way, doing the wrong thing is complex.

Apple-wise, those who are Machiavellian are more likely to transgress, as are those who fail to see a relationship between their actions and outcomes (i.e., those who have an external locus of control) and those who embrace a relativistic moral philosophy. Interestingly - perhaps - demographic characteristics had nothing to do with lying, cheating, or stealing. However, those who were less satisfied with work were more likely to cross the line.

Barrel-wise, some characteristics of work organizations predicted unethical choices on the part of their employees: not being concerned with the well-being of the multiple stakeholders (e.g., other workers, customers, and community members) and a work culture that did not make clear what was acceptable or unacceptable. The mere existence of an explicit code of conduct was not as important in reducing unethical actions as was a code that was enforced. Duh!

Case-wise - and probably the most interesting findings of this meta-analysis - some issues at work predicted doing the wrong thing: those with little apparent consequence, those removed in time from their consequences, and those in which the negative consequences of doing the wrong thing were spread over a large number of people.

So, what's the point about doing the right thing? Positive psychology posits that the absence of a negative is not the same thing as the presence of a positive, although in the present case, perhaps we can make this assumption. I apologize for the black-and-whiteness of my argument, but I am after all addressing wrong and right. So, not doing the wrong thing probably means that one is doing the right thing.

Accordingly, by extrapolation, those who do the right thing are people who do not see others as means to ends, those who believe they are responsible for what happens to themselves, and those who are happy. The latter conclusion is certainly a positive psychology point. Those who do the right thing are in groups with strong social commitment to the welfare of all and clear - and enforced - guidelines about what are acceptable actions. Finally, those who do the right thing are aware of the large and immediate and specific consequences of what they do.

The implications are clear, for employers, teachers, parents, and everyone else. If we want people (including ourselves) to do the right thing, we need to encourage agency and communion. We need to do whatever we can to make people happy and satisfied. We need to put a human face on "those" people who may be affected by our actions. We need guidelines about what is acceptable, and we need to enforce these.

No one said that doing the right thing is easy. But the right thing remains the right thing.


Kish-Gephart, J. J., Harrison, D. A., & Treviño, L.K. (2010). Bad apples, bad cases, and bad barrels: Meta-analytic evidence about sources of unethical decisions at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 1-31.

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