Trust Within and Between Groups with Different Missions

A manuscript currently in press from the University of Zurich reports that subjects who strongly identify themselves with a non-profit mission are more trustworthy in a minimal group setting (i.e., when grouped by artistic preference for Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky) but also harshly discriminate against out-groups when subjects are grouped by the missions they identify themselves with (i.e., Amnesty International or World Wildlife Fund).

One of the most notable hallmarks of unethical behavior is the human ability to justify our conduct, no matter how harmful to someone else’s interests, according to some valued principle. True ethical dilemmas are choices not between right and wrong but between two different forms of the good. People who dedicate themselves to a prosocial mission may be (by personality or experience) more trustworthy than those who do not exhibit such selflessness, but their commitment to the cause biases them in favor of their specific goals over those of others, even if they are equally prosocial. This finding is readily apparent to anyone who has made a study of bureaucracy, whether in businesses, non-profits, or government agencies. Each manager tends to think of his fiefdom as singularly important and will endeavor to acquire further resources to advance its aims, often at the expense of other departments. In the aggregate, this kind of collective mission creep leads to mounting costs that weigh heavily on the broader organization, resulting in greater conflict as blame is apportioned for unrealistic budgets and scarce funding.

We must be careful that our personal bias for our own work does not prevent us from acknowledging the importance of multiple goals being advanced simultaneously within an organization. This can be especially problematic when a manager from one division is promoted to take control of various operational units. Strong leaders should be ready to take the perspectives of others, paying keen attention to biases and context, fairness, and the fundamentals of negotiation.