We like to think of character as stable. "I'd never do x bad thing!" we tell ourselves, but a parade of findings in psychology and behavioral economics shows that our choices are often a lot more malleable than we'd like to admit. Change the surroundings in which you make a decision and you can usually "nudge" people toward changing their behavior--for good or ill.

That's useful to know if you're trying to improve enrollment in your company's 401k or to get more people to become organ donors, but it's also an important reality for business leaders to keep in mind as they build their company culture, asserts marketer and psychology buff Gregory Ciotti in a recent Medium post.

"In his book Behavioral Ethics in Organizations, Dr. Muel Kaptein gives an astute summation of the scientific literature that evaluates how different surroundings can affect decision making," Ciotti reports. "His findings show that the leadership of the company, the values employees share, and the interaction among teams, if handled poorly, can all cause otherwise good people to make bad decisions."

So what sorts of barrels spoil even the best apples inside? Here are a few of the dangerous cultural issues that Ciotti flags.

1. Everyone is crazy busy

Of course you don't want your team members sitting around idle, but if you want them to be scrupulous about their work and thoughtful about their decisions, neither do you want them to be always working at a frantic pace. Obviously, rushed or exhausted employees can make dangerous mistakes, but perceived lack of time also contributes to the sort of selfish behavior that probably won't benefit your team over the long haul.

"Kaptein cites a study that first had theology students preach the story of the Good Samaritan, then walk from one building to another. Along the way, they would encounter a man in distress (in actuality, this person was planted by the researchers). The researchers found that when the students were given ample time, nearly all of them chose to help the man, but when they were told to 'move as fast as possible,' 90 percent of participants ignored the man entirely," Ciotti explains.

Put enough pressure on your team members and they may become similarly blind to helping out colleagues or keeping in mind the larger aims for which they're working. "There is a sincere need for leadership to recognize that more hours at your desk doesn't necessarily increase the output of your work," Ciotti recommends. "Let employees know that it's OK to say no. Fires burn only when they have room to breathe, after all."

2. You're not the best role model

Perhaps it should be obvious, but for Ciotti it bears repeating: If leadership doesn't set a good example--when it comes to the little things or your business's core values--that disregard for the "right" way to do things will trickle down. There's no escaping this leadership law of gravity.

"The behavior of leaders cascades down to the rest of the group. A psychological phenomenon known as 'negative social proof' would argue that the 'right thing' to do becomes questionable when people see the right people doing the wrong things," Ciotti writes. Sometimes this happens when the boss plays fast and loose with the rules, but sometimes it's simply a matter of sloppy or poorly thought-out word choice.

"Statements like 'We do things by the book around here' have been shown to actively discourage creative thinking. Be careful about what sort of behavior that leadership, unwritten rules, and key team members project; people are very sharp in picking up on these subtleties," he urges bosses.

3. Your culture is unclear

Maybe you think your company's cultural values are self-evident. Are you really sure about that? Because unclear values can lead to drift and eventually to counterproductive behavior. It's easy for "it's-not-my-job syndrome to rear its ugly head when nobody in the culture knows what the company values," Ciotti warns.

"Leaving values to develop as they may creates a culture clouded by the haze of uncertainty," he continues. "Do you value finished work or great work? Do you value and reward candor in the workplace? Do you 'default to transparency' and cultivate honest communication? Don't be above creating an internal company culture manifesto, because if you don't know what your company values, the members of your team certainly won't."

If you're sure your company isn't suffering from any of these cultural problems, don't rest entirely easy. Ciotti cites several more issues that are worth checking out in the complete post.

Published on: Nov 3, 2014
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