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Navigating the Ethical Maze: Unveiling the Psychology Behind Unethical Behavior

Leadership is a complex journey, often fraught with ethical conundrums that can test the moral compass of even the most seasoned individuals. Recognizing the psychological dynamics that drive unethical behavior is essential for leaders striving to maintain ethical integrity.

Today we will delve into the depths of the human psyche and explore the three main psychological factors that contribute to crossing moral lines: omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect. By understanding these dynamics and implementing effective strategies to counter them, leaders can navigate the ethical maze and pave the way for a culture of integrity and ethical excellence.

Omnipotence: The Illusion of Invincibility

One of the psychological dynamics that can lead to unethical behavior is the belief in one's own invincibility, known as omnipotence. When individuals feel aggrandized and entitled, they may develop a sense that the rules of decent behavior do not apply to them. This distorted perception can make it easier for leaders to rationalize their unethical actions.

To counter the influence of omnipotence, leaders can implement the following strategies:

  • Seek feedback from a trusted group of peers: Surrounding yourself with individuals who are willing to challenge your decisions and provide honest feedback can help keep you grounded and prevent the development of an inflated ego.

  • Engage in self-reflection: Regularly reflect on your values, principles, and the potential consequences of your actions. This introspection can serve as a reality check and help you stay aligned with ethical standards.

Cultural Numbness: The Power of Group Influence

Cultural numbness refers to the gradual acceptance and embodiment of deviant norms within a group or organization. When individuals observe others engaging in unethical behavior without consequences, they may begin to adopt these behaviors themselves. This phenomenon can erode ethical standards and create a culture where unethical actions become the norm.

To combat cultural numbness, leaders should consider the following approaches:

  • Foster an ethical organizational culture: Establish clear values and expectations that prioritize ethical behavior. Encourage open communication and create an environment where employees feel safe to report unethical conduct without fear of retaliation.

  • Lead by example: As a leader, your actions and behaviors set the tone for the entire organization. Demonstrate and reinforce ethical behavior consistently to inspire others to do the same.

Justified Neglect: Prioritizing Short-Term Rewards

Justified neglect occurs when individuals choose not to speak up against unethical behavior due to the allure of immediate rewards or personal gain. This psychological dynamic can lead to the normalization of unethical practices and the erosion of moral integrity.

To address justified neglect, leaders can implement the following strategies:

  • Encourage a speak-up culture: Create channels for employees to voice concerns and provide anonymous feedback. Develop a system that ensures reported unethical behavior is thoroughly investigated and appropriate action is taken.

  • Establish long-term goals and values: Emphasize the importance of aligning actions with long-term goals and values rather than solely focusing on short-term gains. Encourage employees to consider the broader impact of their decisions on stakeholders and the organization's reputation.


Understanding the psychological dynamics behind unethical behavior is crucial for leaders striving to maintain ethical integrity. By recognizing the influence of omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect, leaders can take proactive steps to counter these dynamics. Relying on trusted peers, establishing personal ethical boundaries, and being vigilant about rationalizing borderline actions are effective strategies to mitigate unethical behavior. By embracing these strategies, leaders can foster a culture of integrity and set a positive example for their organization, ultimately contributing to a more ethical and successful future.

Ethical leadership requires self-awareness, continuous reflection, and a commitment to upholding ethical standards. By staying vigilant and actively countering the psychological dynamics that lead to unethical behavior, leaders can make a significant impact in creating a culture of integrity and driving positive change within their organizations.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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