Doing the Same Work Over and Over Again Might Make You Less Ethical

One of the many things managers worry about is employees breaking the rules. Evidence suggests that such behavior is widespread, and it can have devastating consequences. Companies have tried many different ways to limit unethical behavior – creating codes of conduct to implementing ethical training, but these interventions are often criticized for being ineffective. This may be because they’re too direct.

We tend to think of unethical behavior as intentional, in that employees consciously choose to break rules. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it is not. Research has shown that unethical behavior frequently arises unconsciously from workers’ unchecked, automatic inclinations.

Many jobs require individuals to do repetitive tasks, but their order is often flexible. For example, there are task A’s, task B’s, and task C’s. The employees could finish all the task A’s before moving on to B’s and C’s, so that there is less switching among tasks (e.g., AAABBBCCC). Or they could switch more frequently (ABCABCABC), having more “sequential variety.” The latter might force employees to be more cognitively alert and deliberative, which could lead them to behave more ethically simply by avoiding automatic, self-interested decision making.

So, does this mean that doing the same task over and over triggers’ automatic decision making, in turn, making employees more likely to behave unethically?

Research, published in Organization Science, found that working on the same task may lead to more rule breaking, while switching back and forth between even a few tasks may lead to less.

In all experiments, done for this research, one group saw the problems organized by category (low variety) and the other group saw the problems mixed together (high variety). In one of the studies participants, once they finished these questions, were assessed on their default mode for making decisions using a measure called the Cognitive Reflection Task (CRT). The CRT consists of three questions to test whether someone answers intuitively or deliberately.

The study found that participants in the high-variety group in Round 1 were less likely to cheat in Round 2 than those in the low-variety group. The CRT scores showed that the high-variety group used more-deliberative decision making. Suggesting that seeing a variety of questions, as opposed to organized blocks of questions, activated a deliberative mindset that led to less rule breakage.

These results point to a relatively simple way of supporting rule compliance at work. Changing the order in which employees perform routine tasks may promote rule following much easily than changing people’s motivations.

However, the findings from the study should be interpreted with caution as the study dealt with relatively simple tasks, and one doesn’t know with certainty if the effects carry through to complex tasks. Another research has found that switching between tasks can hurt performance, at least in the short run, and that as a result the greater cognitive load involved can make people feel depleted and therefore more prone to unethical behavior. It might be that with complex tasks, the costs of switching outweigh the benefits of task variety.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that performance pressure at workplace results in unethical behaviors. This is especially true when employees feel they cannot meet expectations any other way. The perception leads to anger, which in turn leads to unethical behaviour. Thus, managers should consider the context of their teams’ work and should then experiment with how to design tasks, while being prepared to monitor its effects.

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