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    Published: April 27, 2009

    Book Review by Frank J. Navran

    The Ethical Executive: Becoming Aware of the Root Causes of Unethical Behavior: 45 Psychological Traps That Every One of Us Falls Prey To

    By Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey. (Stanford University Press, 2008).

    For years now, many of us in the ethics and compliance world have been engaged in an ongoing debate as to why good people do bad things. In this recent collaboration, Robert Hoyt and Paul Hersey have identified 45 psychological traps that we all fall prey to as their answer to the question. Hoyk brings a clinical psychology background to the task. Hersey made his mark in the field of leadership. The style and compactness of the book suggests his earlier collaborations with Ken Blanchard (of The One Minute Manager fame).

    This is a quick, easy read - more headlines than treatise. The psychological key is that we actually look for unethical choices as an option for achieving desired outcomes.  We know them to be wrong but have long since learned to fool ourselves into thinking it is right, or at least not so wrong as to keep us from our goal.

    The traps are described in three broad categories. Primary traps are predominantly external stimuli, such as obedience to authority. Defensive traps are typically attempts to justify misconduct already committed and are usually triggered by guilt and/or shame. Personality traps are traits such as low self-esteem (a negative) and empathy (a positive) that make us vulnerable to wrongdoing when triggered by situational pressure. In my own work on ethics I had characterized Hoyk and Hersey’s “traps” as rationalizations: lies we tell ourselves to give us permission to do what we know is wrong. I suspect that many readers will recognize these traps – so the value is less that of discovery than having a taxonomy to facilitate discussion of their origins and coping strategies.

    After discussing the 45 traps the authors go on to discussion of dilemmas. This section relies on well-known cases: The Parable of the Sadhu, Harvard Business Review (1983) and a discussion of the Jonestown suicides of 1970. These cases allow for a more complex exploration of how various traps emerge and inter-relate.

    I admit to being ambivalent about the authors’ approach. I see the value of simple examples as illustration - a precursor to a more thoughtful dialogue or study. That said, I also find this simplification lacking - unsatisfying. It leaves me hungry for more insight.

    The book implies but does not detail remedies for the various traps or ways to add rigor to one’s thought processes to preclude the traps from undue influence in our decision-making. Consequently it may not satisfy the appetites of the more serious student.

    It does, however, exactly match the attention span of its intended audience: the ethical executive.

    Overall, this is a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf of the typical ethics and compliance office. It would be a ready recommendation to those seeking insight into some of the common ethical challenges, who would be satisfied with a list of warning signs but would not necessarily choose to explore the issues in greater depth. For what it is, it is well done - a "quick read" that has a point to make and makes it simply and clearly.

    Frank J. Navran  President, Navran Associates (www.navran.com).

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