There’s a story from World War II where perfectly normal German men were sent to the eastern front to act as police officers. In three or four years, these sons, brothers, husbands and parents went from ordinary people to absolutely atrocious monsters murdering innocent men, women and children and committing the most horrible crimes. In the history of humankind, there are much more tales like this. Whenever we hear them, it’s very easy to state and believe that we’d never fall this low and that we, in a similar situation, would act morally and ethically.
The fact is that humans are incredibly sensitive to peer and group pressure and that we’re easily swayed to follow courses of action that go against our moral principles. During the previous century, we’ve seen what ideologies like fascism and communism have caused in terms of human suffering. And, of course, unbridled capitalism, left unchecked, has far from a clean record as well.
All of us have been in situations where we’re asked to do something or at least tacitly support actions that leave us with a bad taste in our mouths and a gut feeling that this was wrong. As storytelling machines, we tend to be very good at explaining why what we did was the right thing after all, even if someone got hurt in the process.
The hard part is that nobody goes from a normal, well-adjusted human being to a genocidal maniac in one step. Instead, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and, as with any road, it requires many steps to get there. Normal humans become evil in a gradual, slow process where each step can be rationalized and justified. It’s important to know that also criminals and people generally viewed as objectionable still view their behavior as right and justified.
I’m very careful with giving examples, but all of us have experienced corporate politics where individuals and groups within the company are acting in ways that prioritize their own benefits, rather than those of the company. The tactics I’ve seen employed in some situations were clearly not in line with my principles, nor yours, I believe.
The only way to avoid ending up in a place where we’re forced to act in ways that go against our principles is to be very careful to avoid the first step in the wrong direction. It’s much harder to undo a bad trajectory once we’ve gone down the path further. In my experience, there are at least three techniques or tactics that are helpful: humanize, delay and projection.
First, every politician knows that nothing riles up a community more than creating an us-versus-them context. This allows leaders to dehumanize the opposing group or party. As soon as the opposition is viewed as non-human or at least as ‘lesser humans,’ the group becomes much more willing to commit acts that they would consider objectionable if it would concern their fellow group members. The first technique is to imagine whoever we are in conflict with or are asked to act against as a human. A person who is someone’s child, spouse and parent. Avoiding the dehumanization step is critical to ensure that we treat the other person as we would want to be treated ourselves.
Second, especially when placed in a situation where our gut feeling tells us that something is off, the first priority is to delay decision-making. On numerous occasions, my gut has told me that something is off and then it took me hours or days to figure out what the problem was. We’re wired and programmed with many, almost instinctual behaviors to avoid harm, to ourselves and others, but it takes time for our rational brain to catch up with these. So, whenever something feels off, rather than being forced into a decision on the spot, insist on getting time to think about it. When you’ve figured out what the problem is, it’s much easier to say no in a constructive, rational fashion.
Third, we all have mentors, whether or not these people are aware of it. Religious people may use God or Jesus. Stoics often use Marcus Aurelius. Movie fans may idolize a famous movie character. Social media aficionados may use influencers. A useful tactic is to try to imagine what our mentor, real or imagined, would do in the situation we find ourselves. Of course, we have to be exceedingly careful in who we select as our mentors, as we want to emulate their behavior. However, if chosen well, this can help us ‘do the right thing.’
I’m not saying that we have to altruistically sacrifice ourselves for the greater good. My point is that we should, to the largest extent possible, act by the principles we aspire to follow. Those principles will undoubtedly include competition, often expressed as win-lose games, and that’s fine. The key is that we should feel proud and confident about ourselves and who we are as a person. We all make mistakes, but consistently following a path that feels wrong due to external forces is what we should avoid at all costs.
During our lives and in the companies we work for or with, we’re periodically challenged to agree to courses of action that go against what we would consider ethically or morally right. The best way for me to ensure I do the right thing is to apply the mirror metaphor: will I be proud of the person I see in the mirror if I take this decision or even tacitly support it? It may separate us from the people around us, but as the saying goes: if you don’t fit in, you’re probably doing the right thing.