Wednesday, May 19, 2004

It's the Environment

I realized this morning when I got up that the lessons to be learned from current events are so important and relevant in the business world that it's worth the risk of crossing over into political territory to mention it here.

Let me start off first by saying that ever since Nuremberg Trials, "I just did what I was told to do" has not been an acceptable excuse for behavior that can later been judged to be poor. Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death for their crimes during WWII and seven more were sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths. Each of us must take responsibility for our own actions, or at least not be surprised when others expect us to. It can seem like a good idea at the time or it can feel like it was the only reasonable choice available and even so, our own behavior is still the result of our own choices.

While personal accountability cannot be ignored, it is important to recognize that the environment in which we make our choices greatly influences the choices that we're likely to make. As leaders, it's imperative we constantly ask ourselves what sort of environment we are creating because the choices our employees make can nearly always be found to have stemmed from that environment.

Basic psychology and sociology courses in the first year or two of college (and even some high schools) nearly always cover the Stanford Prisoner Experiment conducted by Zimbardo in which researchers discovered in the most powerful ways possible that even the most normal normal human beings can resort to some pretty atrocious behavior. What is regrettable about current events is that this basic understanding of human behavior does not seem to have been taken into account in the form of putting sufficient safeguards in place to prevent or discourage inappropriate behavior.

Just because it's business doesn't mean we're completely immune from this phenomenon or the responsibility to do better. Hopefully the stakes are just lower and the ability to foster a more positive environment and choose better behavior (regardless of environmental impacts) is easier as a result.

It's also worth pointing out that each and every one of us is responsible for the environment in which we find ourselves; leaders of an organization aren't the only ones on the hook for ensuring the environment promotes ethical, useful, and productive behaviors.

What are you doing to make your work environment a better place, one where you and your co-workers can feel safe and productive? Any thought or ideas you send to will make a good jumping off point for further conversations on the subject.

How well do your business and personal ethics mesh?