Leonard Zwelling

Writing this blog has been on my mind for weeks.

Max H. Bazerman is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. The essence of his book, Complicit, is in the sub-title: How We Enable The Unethical And How To Stop.

I was attracted to this book that was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal some weeks ago because it is the topic that most vexed me in my prior career as an administrator of research, federal guidelines, and compliance with federal code. What do you do when you see something that you think is wrong happening right in front of you? I had to answer that question on a weekly basis when I was a vice president.

Professor Bazerman makes a number of critical points and I cannot do this excellent book justice in 750 words, but here is what I thought the main takeaways were.

According to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, “humans make decisions in two different modes. System 1 is fast, automatic, and efficient.” “System 2 thinking…(is) more deliberate, more cognitive, and less reliant on general rules of thumb.” Kahneman’s famous book is Thinking Fast and Slow and is worth a read. He deserved the Nobel Prize (Economics). Fabulous! This sets up a critical point for Bazerman: “once people start viewing loyalty as ethical, and it becomes part of the System 1 response (thus automatic), they may fail to speak up when evil is being done in their organizations.” Thus, when loyalty to leadership trumps what is right, bad things happen and continue to happen.

What does trust in a person mean? Bazerman cites Meyer, Davis and Schoorman. Trust is based on three attributes: “ability, beneficence, and integrity.” Who do you trust at your organization? Is leadership embodying these attributes. If not and you trust leadership, that trust may be misplaced.

People are more concerned with “the risk of action than about the risk of inaction, even when the risk of inaction is objectively higher.” There’s a “preference for harms of omission over harms of commission.” This is the omission bias. Think about this the next time you are at meeting with your superiors and one of them says something that is either wrong or worse, ignorant. Will you be the one to speak up? If not, you’re complicit. And you are complicit because you fear sticking out, just as you did in your high school math class.

This puts a heavy burden on leaders to create environments where people are free to speak their minds. As Bazerman writes: “leaders are different from other professionals in that they are responsible not only for their own decisions but also for the decisions of those they lead.” Again, keep that in mind when a representative from the highest tier in your organization also says something wrong or silly.

To be successful in not being complicit, you have to understand first that when you hear something that makes no sense, it probably makes no sense to the others at the meeting, too. Second, once you “break the ice,” and say something, others are likely to speak up as well.

These are only some of the lessons from this short, easy-to-read book.

The reason this hit so close to home is that I was complicit on more than a few occasions in my life and I have always regretted it.

When conflict of interest arose at the highest level of MD Anderson, rather than confront what I knew was wrong I had to defend the wrongdoing if I wanted to keep my job. Eventually, some good came of this as the conflict-of-interest rules of the institution were rewritten and the entire issue was moved from the back burner, but first, I was complicit when the president of the institution promoted clinical trials at Anderson with a drug that he invented and in which he had a financial interest, and did so without informing the human subjects of these facts in the informed consent document.

I was on a board of a not-for-profit clinic and thought that it was being run efficiently and providing great care. Then I was hired to work there and found that the rosy picture was a fabrication fed to the board by the executives. At first, I tried to work in the system to make things better. I grew frustrated as things did not improve. In fact, they got worse. I finally spoke up. I was fired.

What did all of this teach me? As the book notes, doing the right thing in the face of wrong doing is not easy and never comfortable. But it also notes that NOT doing the right thing in the face of wrong doing is being complicit. The challenge is finding the way to speak up that does not eliminate you from the picture. It’s a great challenge, but there is nothing that is more important.

And if the leader does not value criticism, but embraces loyalty over honesty, being silent is both difficult and complicit. Think about it.

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