Featured Collaborator of the Month: Francesca Gino

Interview with Francesca Gino, social scientist, author of “Sidetracked” and professor at Harvard Business School

What are your main areas of research? 

Most people want to behave in ways that are consistent with their self-image as competent, effective, and honest human beings. Yet, even when they are fully committed to acting according to their best intentions, they often reach outcomes that bear little resemblance to their initial goals. Why do people often get sidetracked? This is the question I focus on in my research. My research is organized around two conceptual themes: the study of why people fail to follow through on their intentions of being 1) honest, and 2) competent or effective.

This failure occurs because of three sets of forces:

  1. Forces from within
  2. Forces from relationships, and
  3. Forces from the outside world.

Forces from within include factors that reside in people’s minds and hearts. Examples include people’s inaccurate and overly positive beliefs about their abilities and competence, the emotions caused by events unrelated to the decision at hand, and an overly narrow focus when evaluating information to inform their decisions. Forces from relationships refer to factors that characterize ties and interactions with others. People are social human beings, and relationships are beneficial to their wellbeing. Yet, bonds with others often derail their decisions due to various factors, such as the difficulty of taking the perspective of others, the similarities people share with others, and the comparisons they make between others and themselves. Finally, forces from the outside world refer to situational factors that sidetrack people’s decisions. They include irrelevant information, subtle differences in the way decisions are framed, and the structure of the context in which people operate. 

Why are cheating and dishonesty so widespread? How can people negotiate ethically?

Cheating, fraud, deception, uncooperative actions, and many other forms of unethical behavior are among the greatest personal and societal challenges of our time. While the media commonly highlight extreme cases and focus on the most sensational scams (e.g., Enron, Bernard Madoff), less attention is given to more prevalent “ordinary” unethical behavior—unethical actions committed by people who value and care about morality but behave unethically when faced with an opportunity to cheat. My work shows that even good people can and often do bad things (see Bazerman & Gino, 2012 and Moore & Gino, 2013). Examples include cheating on taxes, inflating business expense reports, lying in negotiations, deceiving in interpersonal relationships, overstating performance and contributions to teamwork, and engaging in employee theft.

When considered cumulatively, ordinary unethical behavior causes considerable societal damage, despite people’s best intentions. For instance, employee theft causes U.S. companies to lose approximately $52 billion per year. This empirical evidence is striking in light of social-psychological research that, for decades, has robustly shown that people typically value honesty, believe strongly in their own morality, and strive to maintain a positive self-image as moral individuals. My research investigates this gap between people’s actual dishonest behavior and their desire to maintain a positive moral self-image. To explain this apparent gap, my research illustrates how even subtle forces divert us from our “moral selves.”

How does your work on cheating and honesty and negotiation help companies that want to improve themselves as ethical systems?

My work in this area demonstrates the mental gymnastics that people use to maintain a moral self-image and shows how small changes in both others’ behavior and in the environment steer people away from their moral compass. Departing from prior work that has suggested that morality develops through stages and that considers integrity as a stable personality trait, my work indicates that people’s moral compasses are malleable and that various forces influence them. As a result, even well-intentioned people who value morality can end up behaving unethically. This finding has important implications for practice, as it suggests that managers should invest resources creating systems that promote ethical behavior by accounting for and counteracting the three sets of forces I have discussed.

They could introduce changes that can help people be more honest. For instance, in one project, my coauthors and I examined whether increasing the salience of people’s self-identity, which they commonly define as ethical, reduces dishonesty (Shu, Mazar, Gino, Ariely, & Bazerman, 2012). In this project, we heightened people’s self-identity by simply changing where they were asked to sign documents on which they were being asked to report information truthfully (e.g., an expense report, a tax form). Most compliance certifications, contracts, expense reports, policy forms, and letters ask people to sign at the bottom of the document. In both field and laboratory experiments, my coauthors and I compared the effects of signing at the top of the document, before providing the requested information, to signing at the bottom of the document, after providing the information, on the truthfulness of the information people provide. In a field experiment with an insurance company, we moved the signature line from the bottom to the top of car insurance reports for half of the customers (randomly chosen) who were filling out their policy forms. On the form, customers had to indicate the number of miles they drove the prior year; higher numbers translate into higher policy premiums.

On average, the change we introduced resulted in an increase of about 2,400 miles in mileage claimed on the new policy forms, hinting at what is possible with just a simple nudge to be ethical. In follow-up laboratory experiments, we were able to unpack the psychological drivers of this reduced unethical behavior. We found that signing at the top of the form (before reporting information that can be inflated) increases the salience of ethical standards by highlighting people’s self-identity, thus resulting in greater ethicality.

If could only highlight one paper or research finding (or piece of work that you’ve been involved with) that relates to Ethical Systems which one would it be and why?

People who value morality may also behave unethically if they are able to convince themselves that their behavior is not immoral. In one project, fellow ES collaborator Dan Ariely and I predicted that creativity, or the ability to produce novel, useful ideas, would give people the wherewithal to generate such rationales and thus exacerbate the tendency to justify unethical actions before engaging in them (Gino & Ariely, 2012). Creativity, we predicted, would make people “morally flexible.” We define moral flexibility as individuals’ ability to justify their immoral actions by generating multiple and diverse rationales for why these actions are ethically appropriate. In a series of studies, we found a robust relationship between individuals’ creativity and their dishonesty.

An initial field study conducted in an advertising agency demonstrated that employees who occupied jobs that required creativity were more likely to be morally flexible and to engage in workplace wrongdoing than other employees. In follow-up laboratory experiments using tasks in which dishonesty involved overstating performance for greater monetary payoffs, we found that a creative personality was a better predictor of dishonesty than intelligence. The relationship between creativity and dishonesty also held when we manipulated creativity rather than assessing it as a personality trait. We found that participants primed with a creative mindset were more likely to cheat than were participants in a control condition and that the mechanism behind this link was participants’ greater moral flexibility in the creative-mindset condition.

Tell us about one of your current or future projects.

I am pursuing research that can enhance people’s capacity to stay on track by being ethical, competent and effective. So far, my work has examined the ways people get sidetracked, and has paid less attention to identifying successful interventions managers can use systematically to create systems and processes that tackle bias.

How can managers assure organizational members will make competent and ethical decisions in their jobs? I plan on focusing on this topic in the years to come. Through my future work on ethics, I hope to provide managers with guidelines and interventions that can successfully reduce misconduct in their organizations. Enhancing managers’ ability to keep organizational members on track by designing systems that trigger ethical behavior seems more critical today than ever before. Across the globe, we regularly hear stories of ethical failures, business misconduct, and corruption. As a result, expectations for proper conduct in business are rising.

I have already started working on a few projects examining the effectiveness of interventions to reduce dishonesty. In one project, researchers Joshua Margolis, Ting Zhang, and I are examining a possible intervention to reduce unethical behavior in the workplace by putting more emphasis on process. Specifically, we are exploring the effects of rewarding people not only based on the outcomes they reach but also on the process they used to reach those outcomes. Managers regularly conduct performance reviews and reward organizational members based on the outcomes they produce. Typically, managers pay little attention to the means—how employees achieved these outcomes. As a result, performance evaluations might wrongly reward those employees who achieved good work outcomes through ethically questionable practices. Joshua, Ting, and I are interested in testing how organizations can effectively assess the means used to achieve given objectives during performance evaluations and what consequences this approach has on other organizationally relevant outcomes, such as employees’ work engagement, creativity, and learning.

How did you first get interested in your field?

I was puzzled by my own irrational behavior, and that of people around me. 

If you could only give one piece of advice to companies, what would it be?

To not be afraid to talk about ethics. Whenever I try to collaborate with organizations on projects related to ethics, there is always a bit of reluctance- they’d rather have me focus on innovation, motivation, or productivity. I hope there will be more openness in the years to come towards collaborations that directly target unethical behavior. 

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