What Factors Lead to Unethical Work Teams?

Individuals faced with ethical dilemmas are always free to choose between their perceptions of right and wrong. But some situations are more complicated than that. What happens when an entire team must collectively decide what to do? What factors might sway the group decision in favor of acting unethically? According to research by Pearsall and Ellis (2011), certain types of groups are more prone to ethical violations than others.


The authors first distinguish between two common attitudes people may have: utilitarianism and formalism. Utilitarianism is when a person tends to make decisions by only focusing on possible outcomes and striving to maximize benefits. Formalism is when a person makes decisions while trying to stay within the guidelines of specific rules and regulations.

After conducting an experiment in which work groups were presented with an opportunity to cheat on a self-scored evaluation, the authors found that groups whose members had a high level of utilitarianism were more likely to cheat than groups whose members do not espouse a high level of utilitarianism. Groups whose members espoused formalism cheated less than groups whose members did not espouse formalism, although this effect was not as strong as predicted.

Even among groups whose members had a high level of utilitarianism, some groups were more likely than others to act on it. The determining factor was psychological safety, which is the extent to which group members believe that they will not be punished for making suggestions that seem out of the box or risky. On teams that have a high level of psychological safety, unethical people feel free to suggest solutions that may compromise ethics, without fear that the group will chastise or look down upon them. On these teams, utilitarianism is more likely to lead to actual ethics violations.


So if utilitarian-minded people and psychological safety lead to unethical behavior, does that mean that these factors are bad? Not necessarily. In fact, utilitarian people are known for their innovation and can be quite valuable on teams. Likewise, psychological safety is something that organizations strive to increase in order to foster idea-generation and creativity. So what can organizations do to curb ethics violations? One solution is for managers to practice ethical leadership. The authors explain that this might influence followers to uphold ethics standards, even when utilitarian-minded people exist in a psychologically safe environment. And while it may be impractical to completely avoid situations that encourage ethics violations, identifying when they are most likely to occur is the first step in reducing their frequency.


Pearsall, M.J., & Ellis, A.P. (2011). Thick as Thieves: The Effects of Ethical Orientation and Psychological Safety on Unethical Team Behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(2), 401-411.

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