Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Psychologically safe teams can incubate bad behaviour

When impropriety or corruption emerges in an organisation, some cry “bad apple!” where others reply “more like bad barrel!” Yet between individuals and organisations we have teams, the context in which decisions are increasingly made. A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology sheds some light on what it takes for teams to behave badly.

Researchers Matthew Pearsall and Aleksander Ellis recruited 378 undergraduate management studies students (about 1/3 female), already organised into study groups of three who had collaborated for months. Participants were asked to rate themselves on items relating to different philosophical outlooks, the pertinent one being utilitarianism, where the focus is on outcomes. Previous research suggests individuals who highly value utilitarianism tend to behave more unethically, as they are more prepared to bend rules or mislead if they perceive the ends to justify the means. Pearsall and Ellis suspected the same to be true in groups.

Each team was given a real opportunity to behave unethically, by cheating in the self-evaluation of a piece of coursework. Buried within the scoring criteria was an issue that could not possibly have been covered in the assignment, meaning any team that ticked this off was faking it. As expected, teams with a higher average utilitarianism score were more likely to cheat, mirroring the effect found for individuals.

However, there is an protective buffer against acting unethically in a team. You may be willing to bend the rules, and even suspect others share your view... but do you really want to be the first to say so out loud? Pearsall and Ellis predicted that making this step requires a strong feeling of psychological safety, the sense that others will not judge or report you for speaking out or taking risks. It turns out that the cheating behaviour observed in teams with high utilitarianism scores was almost entirely dependent on a psychologically safe environment, as measured using items like “It is safe to take a risk on this team”. Lacking that safe environment, the highly utilitarian teams were almost as well-behaved as their lower-scoring counterparts.

The researchers note that academic cheating involves relatively low stakes, so this may be a constraint on how far we should generalise to other situations. They also emphasise that psychological safety is generally something we prize in teams, and rightly so: through facilitating open communication and consideration of alternate views it can enhance performance, learning and adaptation to change. However, this evidence suggests that it can also incubate unethical behaviour, and the researchers urge that the field continues to look beyond the traits of individual miscreants to consider state factors such as psychological safety, that allow bad behaviour to take root.

ResearchBlogging.orgPearsall, M., & Ellis, A. (2011). Thick as thieves: The effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96 (2), 401-411 DOI: 10.1037/a0021503


  1. An orientation focusing on formalistic means may be more ethical than one focusing on just outcomes, because of individual accountability and independent confirmation of their decisions, by independent others or independent rules. It requires a group that is wholly differently put together. The very idea of good and bad is tied in with the concept of independent confirmation.

  2. It's very interesting research. I presume that this culture of feeling safe culturally before one cheats or behaves unethically, is what might partly account for corruption in police for example, or even war crimes and atrocities.