In April a Georgia state court judge slapped several former Atlanta school teachers with stiff prison sentences. The educators had been found guilty of participating in a widespread scheme to change students’ answers on standardized performance tests.
In the New Jersey bridge scandal, one state official pleaded guilty last week, while two others were indicted. The allegation is that they caused the massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor who failed to support their boss, Governor Chris Christie. Also last week, an investigation commissioned by the NFL found that members of the New England Patriots staff likely were responsible for deflating footballs, in violation of league rules.
These three scandals arose in very different contexts, yet share a disconcerting similarity: Apparently otherwise honest, ethical people fell down a slippery slope while trying to advance their employers’ causes. And in each case, leaders were blind to the fact that they created the conditions for scandal.
Any organization, no matter how robust its ethics programs or how upright its leaders, can fall prey to scandal. CEOs and board members need to worry about hidden or mixed messages, especially in highly competitive or heavily regulated environments. They should be concerned about unintended consequences. And they need to be mindful of the fact that people do what they are paid to do.
Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly Hall was obsessed with improving scores on performance tests. She built her core strategy, created a corporate culture, and structured performance compensation around achievement of better test results. Just as many corporate leaders do, she set goals, measurement tools, and rewards.
But too often the train goes off the track, as was the case in Atlanta, when the goals set are unrealistic and unreasonable. And when the punishment for failure to achieve goals is overly severe. It is unlikely that Superintendent Hall ordered teachers to cheat. It almost never happens that explicitly. But she created an environment that made cheating all but inevitable, and then she looked the other way.
As for the dozens of teachers who participated in the cheating, most were hard-working, dedicated educators. Just the kind of people you would trust with your child’s well-being. What went wrong?
Based on published reports, many of the teachers felt the pressure of a corporate expectation to go along, or not be thought of as a good team player, too strong to resist. Some of the teachers reported that they rationalized the cheating at first. “It will only be this one time,” some thought. Or, “It helps the students, so how bad can it be?” But once started down that road, there was no turning back.
In New Jersey, everyone knows Governor Christie’s management philosophy: be tough, take no prisoners, and win at all costs. Less widely known but well-documented is the Governor’s penchant for using his power to punish and embarrass rivals and those who offend or disobey him.
The Christie punishment is often petty. Reported examples include: In a snit over a comment by a predecessor, Christie stripped a former governor of his body guard. He disinvited a state senator to a political event in his home district, and he cut off funding for a college professor who disagreed with him on a policy matter.
Just as children learn by example, so do employees. “If the boss is doing it, it must be okay,” they think. Especially if the boss is someone they admire and respect. Christie’s aides, by all accounts, were reputable, capable people. The former U.S. Attorney didn’t hire scoundrels. But that didn’t prevent them from falling off the edge of a cliff trying to do what they thought would please their boss. Closing lanes on the world’s busiest bridge is going a bridge too far when it comes to punishing an opponent.
The three aides doubtlessly will pay a heavy price for their naiveté: Prison time, ruined careers, and felony convictions which will remain with them the rest of their lives. But Mr. Christie should have known better. As U.S. Attorney he doubtlessly saw many instances of CEOs setting a tone at the top that inspired underlings to overreach to curry favor with the boss.
While so far as we know no crime has been committed in Deflategate, the cheating has resulted in reputational and financial damage to the parties involved. What was behind this bone-headed scheme? Football, like many professional sports, is all about gamesmanship: Stretching, bending, and skirting the rules, and getting away with whatever you can get away with, all for the sake of getting a leg up on the opponent.
The line between legitimate stretching and bending, and outright breaking of rules is often thin. Most people suffer the human nature flaw of being overconfident in their abilities. It is the way humans are wired. One of the skills we are wrongly overconfident about is the ability to clearly see the line between bending the rules and breaking them. Business leaders need to understand this. Employees should never be put in the position of having to bend rules. Never.
Reading this you are likely to think, “That’s the other guy, the other company. It can’t happen to me, or at my company.” Wrong. Human nature has endowed driven, successful people with the ability to be blind to obstacles to achieving goals. Often, great successes could not be accomplished without this blindness. But also, often, the obstacles to achieving particular goals include rules, laws, and ethics.
The most important lessons from these stories: It could be you, and it could be your organization. Leaders need to recognize this and take compensating action. Board members need to be truly independent, accessing culture and risk. Corporate cultures need to encourage challenge. And decision makers need to motivate and then listen to dissenters.
A final lesson. By the time gamesmanship gone too far gets to a whistleblower or a lawyer, it is too late. By then the harm to people, businesses, and reputations has already been done.
By Bob Greisman