Why all of us could face UNC’s problem

[This article was originally posted on Max Bazerman’s Linkedin page] 

The recent revelations that at least 3,100 students at the University of North Carolina, many of them athletes, took fake “paper classes” over the course of 18 years stands out as the greatest documented case of fraud in college athletics. Unfortunately, however, this type of unethical behavior is common across organizations and industries—and it shares common roots.

According to the independent report released on Thursday, the paper classes were the brainchild of Debbie Crowder, the assistant to the department chair of the African-American studies program. Hoping to help struggling college athletes and other students do better academically, Crowder set up classes that never met and generously graded the class’s only required paper. The department chair and purported teacher of the courses, Julius Nyang’oro, went along with the scheme after figuring it out.

Mary Willingham, a learning specialist at UNC, blew the whistle on the paper classes, which she said members of the school’s athletic staff openly discussed as a means of maintaining player eligibility. But over the course of many years and investigations, UNC officials maintained that Nyang’oro alone was responsible for the wrongdoing and claimed the athletic department was uninvolved.

The report revealed that, in fact, academic counselors from athletics took advantage of the classes, and two former UNC head football coaches admitted to knowing about them. The school has since fired four employees linked to the scandal and disciplined five others, according to CNN.

As I write in my new book, The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See, professionals train themselves to closely focus on their work. Our ability to focus closely on the task at hand—whether that’s teaching a class, making a presentation, or coaching a winning team—can benefit us in many ways. But this close focus can prevent us from noticing critical information, including the unethical behavior of others.

In my own research, I’ve documented the widespread human tendency to willfully ignore evidence of others’ unethical behavior when it’s not in our best interest to do so, a phenomenon known as motivated blindness. If we have incentives to support others or view them positively, it will be difficult for us to accurately assess the ethicality of their behavior.

Through a process called “ethical fading,” the ethics of a given situation can fade from our decision making. That’s how the decision of whether to launch the Challenger space shuttle on a cold day in 1986 became a management decision focused on costs rather than an engineering one focused on protecting human lives—with disastrous consequences.

And that may be why so many individuals knew about the paper classes at UNC yet failed to take action. The investigator behind the report, Kenneth Wainstein, said there was no evidence that administrators tried to cover up the scandal but rather failed to appreciate the scale of the problem. Noting that UNC is the “flagship” of North Carolina’s university system, whistleblower Willingham said “to admit we did anything wrong was too difficult.”

How can we improve our ability to notice and act on the unethical behavior of those around us? First, we can practice becoming more fully aware of the facts. When we witness questionable behavior, we need to take a second look rather than making excuses. Second, we must give employees incentives to speak up when they observe suspicious behavior. Our organizational culture should support whistleblowers rather than discouraging or penalizing them. Third, we must hold leaders who overlook or make excuses for unethical behavior accountable for their failure to act.

Max H. Bazerman is the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and the Co-Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. His new book The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See was published this fall by Simon & Schuster. You can connect with Max on Twitter and Facebook