While it's easy to rattle off a list of deeply held ethics ("I always tell the truth!" "Of course I'll do the right thing!"), under real-world pressure—when a boss demands an immediate result, when a close friend questions your loyalty—aligning your actions with your best intentions can be tricky. Research suggests that what most people think should happen when an ethical challenge looms is inconsistent with what they actually do. In one Northeastern University experiment, subjects were presented with two tasks: one short and easy, one long and tedious. They could either leave their assignment up to a coin toss or choose the easy task and, as a result, leave the next person in line to receive the harder option. Hidden cameras showed that more than 90 percent of participants took the simple task—but when they watched others do the same, they were quick to condemn them.
You might think a person's values are the product of their upbringing and that after a certain point in life those values don't change much, but scientists and ethics researchers are finding that's hardly the case. To do the right thing, you needn't have been raised a certain way; what matters, many say, is that you put in the effort needed to stay in tip-top ethical shape. The experts often speak of "strengthening your moral muscle," and they believe that you can train to be more ethical, much as you'd train for a 5K race. "Just like being physically fit, being ethically fit takes ongoing practice," says Brooke Deterline, who founded the ethics training organization Courageous Leadership, which bases much of its teachings on the work of her mother, psychologist Lynne Henderson, PhD. "We all have the capacity to do good, but it takes work."
The science-based approach Deterline and Henderson use in their workshops—for companies including Google, Kaiser Permanente, and Stanford's Rock Center for Corporate Governance, as well as for the general public—is called Social Fitness Training, and it involves participants role-playing morally challenging situations. One person might play an intimidating boss, while another acts as an employee who's seen someone fabricate an earnings report. A more personal scenario might involve how to react when you find out that a friend's husband is having an affair.
One of the most important parts of the role play, says Henderson, is getting people to identify the thoughts that might prevent them from speaking up—things like If I call Emily out for fudging the numbers, everyone will turn on me. By zeroing in on distortions in thinking, you can revise your thoughts to better reflect reality: My boss might act surprised, but I think she'll understand that I'm telling her this because I care about the company.
In Donna Hamlin's case, the workshops have helped her identify the kinds of behavior she won't abide. "As a person who has witnessed some pretty corrupt stuff," she says, "I know how hard it can be to say, 'I'm not going to stand for that.' But the more you practice, the better you get." While working as a consultant, Hamlin discovered that an executive was doctoring records. She advised the company's CEO to report the offense to the organization's board; after he refused, she opted to cancel her contract and leave, integrity intact. "Social Fitness Training has changed the way I think about courage," she says. "I've moved from thinking Only heroes have it to I can have it, too."
15 Minutes to a More Moral You
Practice how you'll handle dicey discussions while staying true to your values.
Think of a tough conversation you need to have. Maybe you want to confess to a friend that you haven't kept an important promise or talk to your boss about a colleague who's treating others poorly. Describe the situation in a few sentences.
Jot down the thoughts that come to mind when you think about having this talk—things like: My friend is going to think I'm a liar or If I speak up, I'll get fired for sure.
Question each thought, asking yourself, What's the likelihood this is true? What'sthe evidence? Are my initial thoughts reasonable or exaggerated? Now list potential outcomes that are more realistic.
Come up with a positive statement to encourage yourself as you enter the conversation—such as, "I'm speaking up because I'm committed to being honest." What would you tell a friend who found herself in a similar situation?
Practice the conversation to refine your approach, then go for it! Now that you're amped up and feeling more confident, find your opening and get the discussion rolling.
Elizabeth Svoboda is the author of What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness.