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Why do people do bad things?

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

In the world of HR we are often puzzled by the motives of some people – why do they seem to take the ‘bad’ route instead of the good?

Most people will consider themselves to be good people. Under one percent of men have a psychopathic profile, and the proportion is even lower for women. Yet, why do people still do bad things to each other – especially in work?

Broadly, psychologists have found that there are several reasons or psychological contexts which lead to bad behaviour. Below are the two most common:

1.Everyone else is at fault? Get away with what you can.

Would you speak to someone whilst maintaining eye contact with someone else? Or brush your teeth at your desk? What if you get on a train and the carriage is entirely empty but for one person… do you sit right next to them?

Most of us will answer these questions with a simple ‘no’. There are unspoken rules that compel us to behave in a certain way – what is ‘acceptable’. We may not even be aware of the rules, but they shape what we do every day. What are these unspoken rules that define our world?

They are often referred to as social norms, and they come about because of the behaviour of those around us. It’s a silently agreed code of conduct – what we can get away with and what we can’t.

But they do more than stop us from cutting our toenails during meetings… social norms can have a darker side. If the unsaid rules convince someone that it is okay to claim expenses that are not work-related or lie to customers to get a sale, that person might then feel that it is also fine to demonstrate further unethical behaviours that the majority find wrong.

What are the social norms in your own workplace? It can help to hold conversations on what social norms are acceptable and what it means to be ethical, but there’s more you can do to create an ethical climate at work. We are talking shared values and culture here.

2. It’s not fair…………..

These three words might seem like a playground protest, but feelings of being treated unfairly can stay with someone way past the incident that brought these feelings about in the first place.

For example, if someone asks you what percentage of housework you do . . .

Research shows us that most of us overestimate these things. The combined estimates from couples consistently exceed more than 100%. It takes time to do the housework, so our own contribution sticks out in our mind as more significant than the short minute it takes to notice the other person’s efforts. Once we think there’s a difference in effort, we seek evidence which confirms that belief. We notice when they don’t do the washing up and we ignore the times when they do. The same can and does apply in the workplace.

If everyone experiences a slightly different reality biased in their favour, ‘perceived unfairness’ is going to prey on their minds – and that is often evident in the workplace. Researchers have found that when we feel unfairly treated, we try to redress the balance. At work, this can mean small acts of bad behaviour such as turning up late, working to ‘rule’ – or it can mean larger, more damaging acts of sabotage.

How can we help people see fairness where they otherwise might perceive inequality, bias or discrimination? It is a difficult question to answer in a blog but understanding, communication, shares aims, values and culture will set you on the right track.

This is a huge topic with more layers than this blog can deal with today – it you want to develop your team and understand how to deal with a toxic culture then please give us a ring or email us on info@lamontjones.co.uk