Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, December 19, 2022
by Neil Senturia
Let’s look at bad behavior.
As many of you know, I spent almost six years teaching entrepreneurship at Donovan State Prison. During that time, I interviewed more than 50 of my favorite felons, and I often asked them this question.
“Harry, right before you pulled the trigger, sold the drugs, robbed the bank, etc., right before that moment, what were you thinking?” The almost universal answer was, “I was thinking I wouldn’t get caught.”
Now let’s expand the thinking from criminal acts to “unethical behavior” and that happens routinely in companies, startup or otherwise. The larger question, when we see this behavior, is do we speak up or are we complicit and look the other way?
Not as simple as it sounds.
Max Bazerman, Harvard professor, has written a new book, “Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stop,” that tries to offer some strategies “to help people do the right thing even when those around them aren’t.”
The recent landscape — Theranos, Purdue Pharma and now FTX — is littered with behavior that runs the gamut from fraud to death, with a short stopover in a web 3.0 crypto/financial billion-dollar meltdown.
Bazerman knows that the easy blame is Elizabeth Holmes, the Sackler family and Sam Bankman-Fried, but he doesn’t want to let the rest of the people in the companies off the hook. Other people knew, and they said nothing. They looked the other way.
The same is true of the folks who enabled Bernie Madoff and Harvey Weinstein. So why is it so hard to do the right thing? Bazerman makes two categories. One is “true partners,” those who hold goals aligned with the unethical values of the wrongdoer. The other category is “collaborators.” They acquiesce because they think they will profit in some way, “but never truly believe in a perpetrator’s mission.”
If one of the goals of your startup is a culture that promotes and rewards honesty and transparency, then Bazerman has some strategies to help people in your company resist and expose unethical behavior.
“Reduce the risk of speaking up.” As CEO, you want to hear from the troops. One of the most famous lines from cinema — “Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.”
Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2, is the savior for the bearer of bad news, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” There is always a risk to holding to a higher standard and casting a cold, clear eye on corporate behavior that crosses the line. Companies, big and small, do it all the time, as they manipulate sales numbers. Or customer complaints. Or software bugs.
The irony is that as a country we reward telling the truth — up to a point. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the 2008 mortgage meltdown. Note that no CEO of any bank during that financial debacle went to prison. Only a few lower-level nobodies took the fall. Power and politics turned a blind eye.
Complicit. Allow me to quote Bob Dylan, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” The answer, my friend, depends on how much money and fees you are making.
Unethical behavior lives amongst us all, quiet and overlooked. Fraud and greed occur over time gradually, but they go together like peanut butter and jelly. And if the guy making the sandwich is also serving it and bringing the bill, well, what do you expect?
Bazerman tells us to “widen the lens,” ask for more diversity in the decision-making process. But in the end, the only real question is, how do you want to live your life? “Do you want to be on the side of goodness?”
This is the last column for 2022. It has been quite a year. There will be countless recounting of the past 12 months, and hopefully we can learn from the past, and try to not repeat the failures.
As many of you know, I have spent the past 30 years chatting with my favorite analyst. As each year ends, he offers a final thought, “It could always be worse.” And he always says it with a smile.
See you in 2023, God willing, and the creek don’t rise.
Rule No. 740:
It’s only a game and every year, we get another chance.