A lot of outrage has been expressed at the behavior of the school administrators and the school nurse who did not allow a student suffering an asthma attack the use of his inhaler. The question naturally arises as to how anyone could be so callous as to not respond to an immediate visible need. This was especially so with respect to the nurse whom one would think would put medical needs first and bureaucratic niceties second.
This article reports on a study that may suggest a partial answer as to why people behave in ways that are puzzling.
In the study, to be published in a future issue of The Academy of Management Journal, lead author Keith Leavitt of Oregon State University found that workers who tend to have dual roles in their jobs would change their moral judgments based on what they thought was expected of them at the moment.
“When people switch hats, they often switch moral compasses,” Leavitt said. “People like to think they are inherently moral creatures – you either have character or you don’t. But our studies show that the same person may make a completely different decision based on what hat they may be wearing at the time, often without even realizing it.”
School administrators typically tend to be rule enforcers first and educators second, so their behavior is easier to understand even if we do not condone it. But what of the nurse whose training is to focus on the patient? It could be that if the administrators in the school are continually emphasizing the need to follow ‘correct’ procedures and go by the book, the nurse might well have adopted that mindset, though that same nurse might have acted differently if she were working in a school that had a more student-centered approach.
“What we consider to be moral sometimes depends on what constituency we are answering to at that moment,” Leavitt said. “For a physician, a human life is priceless. But if that same physician is a managed-care administrator, some degree of moral flexibility becomes necessary to meet their obligations to stockholders.”
“Organizations and businesses need to recognize that even very subtle images and icons can give employees non-conscious clues as to what the firm values,” he said. “Whether they know it or not, people are often taking in messages about what their role is and what is expected of them, and this may conflict with what they know to be the moral or correct decision.”
This goes back to the culture of the institution and not so much the policies. All institutions have policies that cover most contingencies. They all tend to say the right things. But it is the culture that determines what kinds of subtle messages people get on a routine everyday basis that tells them what values are important and how to react to situations. And this culture is largely created by the senior people at the top.