ETHICS & Night owls unethical in the morning, early birds unethical at night says new research

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: “When a person has low energy, that person is more likely to act unethically reveals new research reported in the Harvard Business Review. Read this research and then watch yourself and be aware of the times when such behavior is more likely.

For my students, I give them two extra credit questions based upon this research:

1)  Knowing this, what will you do about protecting yourself from such ethical lapses?

2)  And, what will do to help others avoid this misstep?

Low Energy, Low Ethics Chart

by Christopher M. Barnes, Brian Gunia and Sunita Sah | 8:00 AM June 23, 2014

Employees face many temptations to behave unethically at work. Resisting those temptations requires energy and effort. But the energy that is essential to exert self-control waxes and wanes. And when that energy is low, people are more likely to behave unethically. This opens up the possibility that even within the same day, a given person could be ethical at one point in time and unethical at another point in time.

Over the past few years, management and psychology research has uncovered something interesting: both energy and ethics vary over time. In contrast to the assumption that good people typically do good things, and bad people do bad things, there is mounting evidence that good people can be unethical and bad people can be ethical, depending on the pressures of the moment. For example, people who didn’t sleep well the previous night can often act unethically, even if they aren’t unethical people.

Our research started from this idea. Drawing from recent research indicating that people can become more unethical as the day wears on, we asked whether this plays out the same way for people who show different patterns of energy during the course of a day. Fatigue researchers have discovered that alertness and energy follow a predictable daily cycle that is aligned with the circadian process. However, different people may be shifted in their circadian rhythms. Some people are “larks” or “morning people” in that their circadian rhythm is shifted earlier in the day. They are most easily detected by their natural tendency to wake early in the morning. Others are “owls” or “evening people” and they are shifted in the opposite direction. Larks tend to get up early, and owls tend to stay up late.

…A more detailed description will be provided later this year in our forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science.

The important organizational takeaway from these findings is that individual may be more likely to act unethically when they are “mismatched” –that is, making a decision at the wrong time of day for their own chronotype. Managers should try to learn the chronotype (lark, owl, or in between) of their subordinates and make sure to respect it when deciding how to structure their work. Managers who ask a lark to make ethics-testing decisions at night, or an owl to make such decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging unethical behavior.

Similarly, people who control their own work schedules should structure their work with their chronotype in mind. Many of us are tempted to squeeze in that extra hour of work. If we’re a morning person squeezing it in at night, though, we create a situation in which resisting temptation may be harder than ever. Owls who schedule extra hours for themselves early in the morning face the same issue.

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