Ethics, compliance and the psychology of conformity

“Of course it’s OK to take a customer for a posh lunch while we are negotiating a contract: show me where it says in the Code of conduct that we can’t do that” 

This was a senior sales leader in a major engineering company, that had already had a significant ethical contravention a few years earlier.
So we showed him.

My young colleague pointed to the page in their Code of conduct, exactly where it said that you can’t take a customer for a posh lunch while in process of contract negotiations. And we showed him the 2010 Bribery Act. And the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

He stopped in his tracks, visibly taken aback.

“But of course it’s OK: everybody does it, so it must be.  Mustn’t it?”

That’s the power of conformity. 

The way people behave, their attitude to ethics, shows what it means to belong.
The rules were there. But the ethical practice was not.
How can this be?

Because we are wired for conformity. We are less likely to relate to the rules than to follow what is considered ‘normal’ around us.

It’s pretty obvious, if you think about it, that a posh lunch during contract negotiations could, at best, be inappropriate. It could be interpreted as bribery. But everybody was doing it: so it was common for sales people – even senior team – to follow the tribe’s behaviour.

The Psychology of conformity and belonging 

Conformity is a deep part of our psychology. It’s intertwined with our need to belong.
‘Doing the right thing’ can be led by conformity – rather than the code of conduct.
The influence of others, even when we know we are right, is very powerful.

How does conformity work? It’s pretty simple: we’re influenced by those around us and copy what we feel will help us be accepted by the group.
This is why it’s such a significant belonging challenge for business.

The Asch Conformity Experiments show a stark example. Back in the late 1950sProfessor Solomon Asch and his team at Swathmore College ran experiments in which only one member of a group was the real subject, the others were part of the research team, posing as subjects. A ‘research leader’ asks people to match the length of a line on one diagram to three lines on a reference sheet. One by one the team each gives the wrong answer. At first the chap gives the right answer, but quickly, as everybody else vets their answers out loud, he conforms to the group. Have a look at the old film clip here, it shows how conformity – even to obvious wrong answers – can be startlingly persuasive.

In simplistic terms this is what our salesman did with ethics, in the experience above.

This is absolutely about belonging: it’s the force of our tribal nature.
Conformity shows the power of culture to harm as well as help your business.

At our recent Belonging Summit Jorina Von Zimmerman, Experimental Social Psychologist at University College London (UCL) shared fascinating insights from research into the psychology of conformity. She is kindly preparing a paper for us on belonging and conformity which we will share soon (email us if you are particularly interested in this, we’ll be sure to forward it)

Back to our example, from a wide-reaching culture and ethics programme.
It shows the power of culture and belonging – and how conformity with ‘the way we do things around here’ can harm as well as help your business.

All the heavy weight of compliance information had not shifted this chap’s perspective. Until he ‘woke-up’ in our workshop, confronted by the reality, and faced-up to an ethical dilemma he didn’t even realise he – or the business – had. Ignorance would not have been a successful defence for him or for the company, for the regulator or for the courts.

It’s these profound moments of personal realisation that really add to up to shifting a culture of ethics.

When enough people are aware of good practice, and can lead it confidently, then they become the ‘norm’ that others follow. Then conformity can work in your favour.

If you’d like to look at how to start, give us a call.
Or if you’re happy for senior leaders to be convinced it’s fine to carry on conforming with what everybody else is doing… then carry on.