Bad Actors or Bad Barrels


When ethical blunders happen, we love to point our fingers at the villain. Pinpointing a protagonist gives us closure. It helps us make sense of why the bad thing happened - because someone was unethical.


Indeed, there are many cases where someone knowingly broke the law or intentionally took advantage of the system. But the truth is, more often than not, the ethical mishap is more nuanced and caused by an interaction of the person’s behaviors (or lack thereof) and the situation they are in.


The competitive and regulatory stance of an industry, the culture and structure of an organization, and the interpersonal dynamics of superiors and peers, also play a vital role in unethical outcomes.


Individuals should always be accountable for their actions. But if we stop there and fail to reevaluate the system in which they are embedded, the system will continue to produce unethical outcomes regardless of the characteristics of the people involved.

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