I am not an expert in social psychology. But I am very interested in the topic. Maybe it’s because in my day-to-day work as an employment and discrimination lawyer, I constantly interact with individuals and advise them on their behavior.
In doing so, I cannot deny the fundamental principle that not only the behavior but also the thoughts and feelings of individuals are influenced by the presence of others and social norms, be they those existing in a particular workplace or in society more generally.
That’s why social psychologist Dolly Chugh’s Ted Talk How to Let Go of Being a “Good” Person — and Become a Better Person, really caught my imagination. Chugh begins by explaining that being liked and being seen as “good” is very important to us, and when that identity is questioned, we go on the “red-zone defensive.”
Chugh then explains her research on “limited ethics,” in which the human mind is limited by its ability to consciously process about 40 pieces of information out of the 11 million pieces of information that comes in at once. The mind must therefore rely on shortcuts or unconscious biases to organize information.
This is where I think it gets interesting: Most of the time, our identity as a good person is not questioned, be it by ourselves or by others, which means we think less and less about our unconscious biases and the ethical implications of our behavior, and in return we spiral towards less and less ethical behavior.
Chugh thinks this may be because the definition of a good person is either-or and we don’t allow room to learn from our mistakes. As she explains, if you “needed to learn accounting, you would take an accounting course…we talk to experts, we learn from our mistakes, we update our knowledge, we just keep getting better.”
After advising on countless grievances, disciplinary actions and discrimination in the workplace, I was really touched by the idea of being a good person and instead working towards becoming a better person.
Finally, it seems to be supported by research, and my own view is that we tend to think in extremes – someone or something is either really good or really bad and the gray area, not quite as good but not too bad too be often overlooked or forgotten.
When a “really bad” scenario emerges in the workplace, it is immediately apparent, the correct policy is identified and applied, and while the complainant may rush into their defensive red zone posture, their behavior is often unjustifiable and the employer decides about you can become a better person in the time of another employer.
However, where a scenario falls into the gray area, that cannot always be said. For example, an employee with a disabled child is not offered the opportunity to take on more responsibility at work because the supervisor equates additional responsibility with additional stress and the opportunity would therefore not be welcomed by the employee.