Should we try to reason with criminals? Is the threat of punishment the only influence that criminals will respond to? What should we do when we suspect people are taking data with them when they leave a company, leaking to the competition or stealing equipment from the office but can’t prove it? As well as trying to manage criminal behaviour with appropriate detection and punishment mechanisms, we should also appeal to people’s moral codes.
Moral codes are intrinsically linked to people’s sense of self worth. People’s sense of self worth is largely dependent on how they see themselves. While it’s tempting to think people who lie and cheat have no moral code to speak of, actually even hardened criminals have some kind of moral code. People will go to extraordinary lengths to ‘see’ themselves as good people even when their actions suggest otherwise. It’s astonishing how easy it is for some people to convince themselves that they are moral people while committing harmful acts. Yes I’m violent, but I never lie. Yes I tell lies but I never physically hurt people. Yes I hurt people, but only those who deserve it. Yes, I steal from my company but only because I’m underpaid, or because the shareholders don’t deserve the money, or everyone does it, or because it’s Tuesday. The possibilities for self-justifications are endless. Usually though, whatever the self justification is, it helps people shield themselves from the moral consequences of their actions.
It’s often said that in life that some people are always honest, some people are always dishonest and the majority could go either way within reasonably narrow parameters as long as the action doesn’t raise too much conflict with their self perception. The majority claim a few extra expense miles here and there and only recall that their old camera was a gold plated limited edition model when it’s time to fill out the insurance form.
Wherever people sit on the spectrum from compulsively dishonest to mostly well behaved, the interesting thing is that just reminding people of their morality makes a difference in their behaviour. In Boston in the 1980’s and 1990’s there was an epidemic of gang related homicides. Offenders were being caught and locked up but the problem continued despite the presence of an apparent disincentive. Then a Harvard Academic, David Kennedy, tried a new approach – appealing to people’s ‘better nature’. He started by researching the problem. Who was attacking who? What were the triggers to the problematic behaviour? What were the value systems of the people committing the crimes? Once he understood the group dynamics he was able to understand that for some criminals, serving time was a badge of honour and that the threat of punishment alone was not the best solution. He then started to look at other angles to leverage in order to change their behaviour. He organised meetings as part of bail conditions where accident and emergency doctors would talk about the life long impacts of a knife or gunshot wound. Maybe the best way to look out for your friends isn’t to support them in a fight but to help them from getting into a fight in the first place. His trump card was to bring in mothers who had lost children to gang violence. Many gang members found it extremely uncomfortable to be confronted with a grieving mother and some were moved to tears. They were challenged to consider the impact to their own mothers if they were killed or maimed. It turns out that even the most hardened criminals have soft spots for their mothers.
The next time you have a problem with people in your organisation who are breaking the rules or committing illegal acts, consider a moral appeal. So what does a moral appeal look like? Well, it’s not a lecture. It’s not a threat. It’s an honest conversation where efforts are made to remind people of the good things they perceive about themselves. The words you use need to invoke people’s moral paradigms. It’s a conversation about trust, about responsibility and about keeping promises. For example, if your CEO ever has the cause to address staff about protecting intellectual property, make sure they don’t just threaten staff with sanctions. Get them to talk about the trust that shareholders have in the staff to do the right thing. About all the collective hard work that has taken place to build the value of the organisation and the promises staff made when they signed their employment contract.