Lessons in ethics from the field
The recent ball-tampering controversy involving members of the Australian cricket team shone a light on how ethics can be forgotten in the desperation to succeed at all costs— and how that can derail careers and puncture reputations. We spoke to three professors from top business schools on the possible key takeaways from the controversy for millennial workers, HR managers, and, of course, CEOs and other leaders.
Soumyatanu Mukherjee, assistant professor, economics, Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode
Most of us felt sorry for Steve Smith and interpreted his mistake as an unethical act committed out of desperation to win, as the captain of a top-class team. Let me now tell you an economic story behind his decision to permit his mate (rookie Cameron Bancroft) to tamper with the ball. Being an experienced cricketer, Smith was well aware of the “risk” (of getting caught) associated with the decision; however, he still went ahead with the decision to look for high returns, i.e. getting quick wickets of the South African batsmen in this case. A graduate in economics would say Smith is possibly risk-loving by nature.
But is it the only interpretation of his preference structure? Indeed, his preference might have been formed by looking at the past: Many great players of different cricket teams have been suspected of ball-tampering, but did not face severe punishment, and, most importantly, at the end of the day, had the best of possible outcomes. Once you have incorporated expectation from past instances of evading severe punishments, you would be naturally inclined to take this risky decision, to win at any cost.
In the case of the Australians, it was sustaining an additional risk of operating a closed “leadership group”, where there was less leadership and more groupthink: David Warner too was involved in the “risky” and “unethical” decision. What Smith could have done instead was involve team members he knew may have had different opinions. He could even have spoken to the whole team.
In high-pressure situations, the ideal practice should be to encourage even the junior-most team member to give any suggestion, rather than take decisions based on a single opinion. Unethical acts not only alter the outcome for the cheater, but also encourage others to behave in an identical way. Such practices end up contaminating the whole culture. However, Smith and his Aussie teammates were apologetic about their “errors of judgement”. Companies and their managers should also learn from that.
Chandrasekhar Sripada, practice professor (organizational behaviour and strategic human capital), Indian School of Business, Hyderabad
There are five characteristics of a leader—character, courage, collaboration, conviction and competence. In our bid to maximize profits or speed up processes, we often do not confirm if all the checkboxes are ticked. It is not necessary that the best batsman would be the best captain, just as it is not necessary that the best marketer will make the best CEO. Organizations must check and include more filters for the selection process of leaders. We often confuse leadership with winning, and not playing. It is the same philosophy that makes companies chase profits at any costs. This puts undue pressure on everyone, including the leadership, to perform and win.
If leaders cannot provide the right guidance, we must have other safeguards. There should be a forum employees can go to to lodge any ethical complaints anonymously. The buddy system can also be very helpful in such situations. Companies can also spend some time and effort in acclimatizing new employees on what is right or wrong, and it should not be limited just to signing a “code of conduct” document.
Nisigandha Bhuyan, associate professor, business ethics, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
Usually, when I talk about ethics, it is a top-down approach when it comes to organizations. Because in a bottom-up approach, even if an employee is ethical, it would be very difficult for him or her to influence the whole organization. However, if the leader’s value system is ethical, it can be absorbed in the system easily. We must focus on the leaders while talking about ethics, rather than on employees.
In a situation where a leader has asked an employee to do something which might or might not be unethical (as most situations are more grey than starkly black or white), it is most likely that the employee will follow it. Theoretical ethics would say that we all will say no to such requests. But practicality dictates that we will do it because there are other things at stake—maybe a promotion, maybe a pay hike, or a project, or the entire job itself. If these are not important, then it would be easier for someone to stand their ground. On the other hand, it can also be helpful if the system ensures justice or if there is something which protects the whistleblower.