Beware of Drift
As demonstrated by the Stanford Prison Experiment, behavioral drift is insidious. It happens slowly and progressively. It’s the fabled frog who sits in a pot of water, unperturbed, while the water warms ever so slightly until boiling. In organizations, behavioral drift is defined as the continual re-establishment of new, often unstated, and unofficial standards of behavior in an unintended direction. In other words, when organizations begin taking procedural or ethical short-cuts, the heat has begun to rise. Fortunately, leaders can mitigate drift by engaging in the following critical leadership practices: 1) select the right people, 2) cultivate a cultural identity, and 3) balance psychological safety with accountability.
Select the Right People
In his pivotal book, Good to Great, researcher Jim Collins shared that great organizations start by “getting the right people on the bus.” In other words, they place great emphasis on their personnel selection programs to ensure they have employees who possess the right attributes to not just perform well in their organization but also to adhere to its cultural norms. Although Zimbardo found that behavioral drift is more situational than it is dispositional, there are some people who are more prone to drift than others. There are characterological differences between those who are morally sound and those who run towards deviance. A strong personnel selection program equipped with psychological testing can measure those traits and help leaders make well-informed hiring decisions.
Cultivate a Cultural Identity
No one works for free. However, top performing employees don’t work for a paycheck. They are fully engaged in their work because they find fulfillment in the work itself. Their fulfilment comes from a sense of purpose that runs deeper than money. According to Self-Determination Theory, human beings have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence (i.e., the need to grow and develop in a particular area), and relatedness. Relatedness refers to a sense of connectedness to a social group. When an organization satisfies the need for relatedness in its employees, it targets employee motivation on a deeper level. Ray Dalio, founder of brokerage firm Bridgewater, knows this well. He shares the importance of having a prominent organizational culture in his book Principles. Dalio explains for a workforce to be cohesive, productive, and successful, an exemplary company culture is necessary.
Organizational culture refers to the underlying beliefs, assumptions, values, and behaviors that are unique to a company. When an organization’s culture is strong and congruent (i.e., when its leaders both preach and practice its values), it is exemplified and amplified by members of that culture. When organizational cultures are vague or ill-defined, however, they leave the door open for interpretation. In other words, there is room for new, unstated, and unofficial standards of behavior to creep in. Ambiguity is to behavioral drift as moisture is to mold.
Balance Psychological Safety and Accountability
Psychological safety- defined as the ability for members of a team to take interpersonal risks- has been linked with numerous organizational benefits. Employees who work in psychologically safe environments experience healthier group dynamics, greater innovation, and make better overall decisions. Environments that lack psychological safety can easily experience deleterious consequences. These consequences can range from an employee withholding a valuable idea during a team meeting to an operating room staff member failing to speak up when the surgeon is about to perform a wrong-side surgery. In these cases, employees are choosing self-preservation over what’s best for the organization (or even what is ethical). And, these poor decisions pave the way for future tradeoffs between ethical compromises and the avoidance of social embarrassment.
Psychological safety is only half of the equation, though. Safe is not synonymous with soft. An environment with psychological safety but no accountability is one with no growth or discipline. Leaders that promote accountability are those who proactively and concretely define expectations and intent, reward desirable behavior, and immediately address/correct undesirable behavior. These leaders maintain high expectations for their employees while also promoting empathetic concern. Those types of workplaces engender driven and satisfied employees who respect their leaders rather than fear them. And, an employee who views her employer favorably is one who is less susceptible to drift.
Behavioral drift can take down even the most successful of organizations. Drift occurs when guidance is ambiguous, training is lacking, and oversight is non-existent. Fortunately, leaders can take proactive steps to protect their organizations against drift by hiring the right people, promoting a values-based culture, and creating an environment that is both psychologically safe and one that demands accountability. While it is impossible to make an organization completely drift-proof, those practices will decrease its susceptibility to drift while also increasing employee engagement, job satisfaction, and productivity.