Why do good people do bad things? We’ve all made bad decisions in our lifetime. What makes us more likely to choose the wrong decision?

I was thinking about these questions when I was recently asked to speak on a college campus on the topic of ethical leadership. I was thinking about the term leadership coupled with ethics and a possible answer struck me. It all comes back to one of the two fundamental characteristics of a People Centric organization: empowerment.

Using the first definition of empowerment, I asked the students at the event if they worked for me would they want me to “empower them”. They were enthusiastic. Absolutely!

Then I surprised them when I suggested that this definition is crap.

I showed them the second definition of the word and suggested that this is the true definition of empowerment. The first definition is only applicable if a person is willing to surrender their power to someone else.

This is the insight.

Maybe the root of unethical behavior comes when people are willing to surrender their power to someone else.

Think about Enron. Traders were calling power plants in California asking them to shut down the plant for no reason just to manipulate the price of energy. Hundreds of people were involved. The blackouts in California were making national news. People were going home to their families probably telling them that they were involved in the blackout. Yet few people did anything about it. They were “simply following instructions”. It was “above their pay grade”.

If empowerment surrendering is a key to unethical behavior, we are in a bit of a jam right now. In the US, 2/3 of all workers are disengaged or toxic at work. This means, in a way, they have surrendered control of 40% of their life (the amount of waking time a person spends at work) to an employer in exchange for pay. Many have given up on ever having a job they will love in exchange for security. They are only a short step away from “simply following instructions” or, as happens in many cases, “sticking it to the man” by stealing from their employer (money, time, effort).

Look, I’m not passing judgement here. I’ve been there. I took my first job having no idea what I was going to be doing or making or whether or not my company was even ethical. I did it because the pay and benefits was awesome. We all make those types of decisions and hopefully we learn from them.

Yet I wonder if more people lived by the second definition of empowerment, would we have a more ethical world?