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Ethical Fading

Self-deception can be costly, especially to a senior leader with so much depending on them to lead an organization. A leader who is caught lying to themselves or to others loses their credibility and possibly their career. It doesn’t seem worth it to engage in high-stakes deception. Telling the truth and being open and honest about one’s shortcomings seems to be the best approach for all involved and all affected. Unfortunately, strategic leader self-deception is a common occurrence.

Strategic leaders are human and subject to the same desires to protect their ego and self-image as is anyone. This could be an answer as to why someone so high up with so much responsibility would engage in self-deception. Intentionally shunning self-awareness can help preserve their self-image as a moral and reasonable person. Denying the truth to oneself can have the effect of dulling the emotional sting[1] of realizing that one’s actions may not align with their moral compass moral compass.

Self-deception can also be unintentional, even instinctive. It can be a way to preserve one’s position and may not be done with premeditated malice in mind. Even good people can engage in unethical behavior that goes against their true morals or the morals they believe they have. Leaders may place constraints on their morality in favor of their self-interests, and possibly to the detriment of their followers and their organization.[2] No matter what the intent or method, self-deception incurs a psychological cost, and the practitioner must do what they can to limit the internal damage.

Ethical Fading

Ann Tenbrunsel has published a lot on ethics. A discussion on ethics is important because deception can be harmful to oneself and to others. With her colleague, Max Bazerman, Tenbrunsel published Blind Spots. They stated that people generally fail to see the bias in their ethical decision-making. Leaders who would condemn immoral behavior in others may, in fact, make decisions resulting in unethical acts. Bazerman and Tenbrunsel explained that such activity might be more instinctual than planned. As the leader gains distance from their unethical decision, of either time or proximity, they may gain greater focus on their decision and see its moral questionability.[3]

With another colleague, David Messick, Tenbrunsel explained the connection between ethical decision-making and self-deception. They explained that a leader could behave self-interestedly while at the same time believing that they are acting in keeping with their morals. Self-deception allows them to behave this way. They described this as an internal con game. The unethical aspects of their decisions fade into the background, where the moral implications of their actions can be obscured. By deceiving themselves, leaders can behave badly but not realize they are acting contrary to their ethical beliefs.[4] A leader can act immorally while avoiding the pain and discomfort of an internal struggle if they push this dilemma down deep within their psyche.

Focusing Inward

Unethical behavior, self-deception, and an inward focus work in partnership. One who is self-centered and more concerned with satisfying their selfish needs over those of their direct reports and their team may be more likely to engage in unethical behavior.[5] Again, Tenbrunsel and Messick explained that the self-deception process enables one to validate morally unjust actions into more socially palatable actions that they and others might accept. They described some of the elements of this process. The self-deceiving leader can internally describe their behavior with more acceptable language, making it easier to digest. They can incrementally bury the implications of their unethical decisions. They can introduce self-imposed constraints on the moral representations they assign to certain acts. All of these elements are aimed at reducing the moral responsibilities they believe they are accountable for.[6]

Cameron Cozzens is the Director of Government Practice at the Arbinger Institute. Arbinger helps individuals and teams change the mindsets that drive the behavior that transforms the culture of an organization. I interviewed Cozzens to discover how Arbinger helps leaders overcome a self-deceptive mindset. He explained that leader self-deception is indicative of a self-focused mindset. Such leaders tend not to see others as people, more as objects or obstacles to ignore or scapegoats for their failings. To fight this mindset, he explained that leaders needed to be curious about the humanity around them. They need to be curious of the people they serve to discover their needs, goals, and objectives.[7]

Self-Regulatory Resource Depletion

Such practices over time can leave lasting effects. In a study of Dutch organizations published in the Journal of Business Ethics, researchers questioned 100 organizational supervisors from the line level to the senior managers to discover the role self-regulation plays in unethical leadership behavior. They found that current fast-paced, high-stress, high-stakes environments are rife with fraud and corruption. Executives with hectic and demanding schedules make it more difficult for them to act ethically. Even though the environment works against the moral leader, conformity to ethical standards is an important aspect of their role. These researchers found that leaders who place a low value on acting morally as an important part of their definition of themselves deplete their mental regulatory resources in a cyclical fashion. As these self-deceiving leaders continue to behave immorally, their ability to realize they are acting immorally slowly erodes. This process promotes even more immoral behavior. Leaders with high moral identities, they found, suffer this phenomenon less.[8]

When a leader is successful at deceiving themselves into thinking they are more talented and more ethical than they really are, they put their minds a little more at ease. Also, when they can push ethical dilemmas down from the surface, they may see the dilemma as less moral than it is. The more a leader practices ethical fading, the easier it becomes to act immorally again.


  • people generally fail to see the bias in their ethical decision-making

  • self-deception enables one to validate morally unjust behaviors so that it conforms to what others may see as more socially-palatable actions

  • demanding schedules make it more difficult for executives to act ethically

[1] Williams et al. (2009) [2] Bazerman and Tenbrunsel (2011) [3] Bazerman and Tenbrunsel (2011) [4] Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) [5] Desai et al. (2018) [6] Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) [7] Cozzens, C., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [8] Joosten et al. (2014)

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