Moral Licensing

Recently, the executive in charge of ensuring compliance to insider trading laws at Apple was unceremoniously fired. The reason? He has been accused of… insider trading.

This is a typical example of moral licensing: A psychological phenomenon, where we think that if we behave well in one area, we are allowed to slip a little in another area. Think of the corporate executive, who is publicly very concerned about global energy consumption, but racks up hundreds of thousands of miles by plane every year. Or think of the politician, who passes a controversial law which requires massive sacrifices to serve the public good, but creates exemptions for himself from this very law. The public persona, full of virtue, is sometimes less virtuous in private.

Moral licensing is based on the idea that virtue works like a bank account: If we save in one area, we are allowed to withdraw a little in another area. Alas, leadership integrity does not work that way. Our integrity is judged by our single moments of weakness, not by our average behavior. Integrity is digital, like the oil level in our car. As it happens, the life expectancy of our car engine is not determined by the average oil level over a longer period of time, but is determined by the single, fatal moment where we run out of oil.

The maximum behavior we can expect from the people around us, equals the minimum behavior we show ourselves. Moral licensing is therefore a dangerous game: One moment of weakness will put our integrity counter and leadership reputation back to zero.  

Photo Credit: iStockPhoto/juststock

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