How to do the Right Thing

January 15, 2019 5:02 pm

In just a few short weeks, the final report from the Hayne Royal Commission is due to be released. So it is timely that Tim Shaw at 2CC radio in Canberra asked me to talk with his listeners about what neuroscience tells us about: Why it is hard to do the right thing?

Here are the highlights from that discussion – plus some additional tips on how to ensure you and your team do the right thing even when no one is watching

It is not a matter of motivation. Most people want to do the right thing.

A combination of our own biases – due to the natural way our brains functions and business cultures make it easier to fall into mental traps that lead to self-serving decisions.

Neuroscience has clearly shown that we are more prone to biased and ineffective thinking when: the pressure is high, there are conflicting priorities and especially when we perceive a threat in our work environment. The pressure at work is certainly increasing.

So, it is important for leaders to understand how the brain functions to avoid these pitfalls.

  1. Human brains are wired to protect us– any threat will cause our brain to prioritise our immediate safety – if we don’t feel safe, we cannot think clearly.
  2. We are wired to connect with others– our brains are constantly looking for clues to what is expected, acceptable and preferred – if the formal rules say one thing, but everyone is doing something different – we will take our cues from the people around us – especially attending to what our leaders are doing.
  3. Our brains are wired to be efficient– we all take shortcuts, which means we are prone to one-dimensional thinking which causes us to miss valuable information and perspectives.

The fact is most important decisions are not one-dimensional. For ethical and fairness decisions there are always multiple values at play. We value our customers, and we value our paychecks, we value our shareholders and the communities we work in.

Leaders must ensure that day-to-day discussions reflect that complexity.

Whether they intend to or not – leaders create the culture or the informal rules about what is important, what is allowed and what is expected, by what they talk about and don’ttalk about.  We are in a fast-paced, fast-changing business climate – what we chose to emphasis speaks volumes.

The science and experience have shown us that – There are things that we can do that will help make it easier to do the right thing.

  1. Reduce threat – make it normal to talk about mistakes, problems, behaviours that don’t seem quite right. If you are a leader, get some assessment and feedback about how you can better cultivate a culture of trust, respect and courage.
  2. Remember we have biases – leverage the diversity around you to ensure you consider multiple perspectives and get all the data you need to understand the decision you need to make. We must broaden the thinking – routinely ask what is the impact on customers – does our sales technique make them overly vulnerable to buying things they don’t need? Have they been unfairly pressured into a purchase that will not really benefit them? How can I confront my peer and maintain a good relationship? If you are a leader, get feedback/assessment to recognise your specific biases and understand how to meditate the risk of inadvertently making it harder for your people to do the right thing.

Doing the right thing is not about one-off training on the company values.

Norms, habits and everyday behavioural patterns – our regular daily discussions have to be free of threat and constantly balance business performance with the needs of customers, needs of employees and the expectations of the community.

For leaders who want to build confidence and competence in themselves and their teams to do the right thing or businesses who want to restore or build customer trust in their brand, Learning Quest has developed ACUITY™.

ACUITY™ teaches leaders to:

  1. Recognise and remediate the conditions that unintendedly cause people to do the wrong thing.
  2. Uncover the biases and cultural practices that make it hard to do the right thing and then shift the way they work to make it easy and natural for people to do the right thing every time.
  3. Build the skills in themselves and their team members to recognise and to resolve these issues in a high pressure, intense work environment.


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