Why Good People Do Bad Things

Jann FreedLeading Leave a Comment

This post is written for anyone who is trying to figure out why good people can do some bad things and in the process hurt many people.  The legacy we leave is the life we lead.–Jim Kouzes  

NOTE:  My next podcast will be posted this Friday (the second Friday of each month)!  Listen to learn more about Becoming a Sage.  

As a person who spent 30 years of her first career in higher education, I have to process the college-admissions scandal.  There are so many aspects that are WRONG about this situation.  The questions that keep going through my mind include:

  • What kind of example are these parents modeling for their college bound children?
  • Why did they not think about this?
  • What makes them think cheating to get their kids into these elite colleges that the kids will succeed?
  • Why is it so important for these parents (that they would take extreme actions) to have their kids go to these colleges? 
  • How do these kids feel knowing their parents cheated for them?
  • Where was their value system and ethical framework to stop them?
  • And the list goes on …

Last week, a top lawyer admitted guilt in the scandal after he paid $75,000 to make sure his daughter got a good score on the college entrance exam.  The money was for a professional to take the exam for his daughter because he did not believe she would score high enough to get admitted on her own.  He said that his daughter knew nothing about this scam and “has been devastated to learn what I did and has been hurt the most by it.”  This lawyer has been suspended as co-chairman of the firm and is no longer a partner there.

This week, more parents have come forward admitting guilt and there will be consequences (as there should be) for them and possibly for their kids who may not have participated in the scam.  But the main question for me is:

Why do good people do bad things?

This is called the dark side of the ego.  The ego wants to protect us and tells us we can do no wrong.  We have to have an ego or we would not be able to stand up!  But the dark side manifests itself in behaviors such as:  greed, envy, defensiveness, micromanaging, jealousy, manipulation, and more.  When these behaviors dominate, people lose sight of what is wrong and how other people are being affected.  It is all about the ego and protecting that.  When we don’t realize the ego is taking over, we are self-centered and not thinking of others and how our behaviors having an impact.

Another good example is the current story of Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos.  This month there is an excellent documentary on HBO titled:  The Inventor:  Out for Blood in Silicon Valley based on the book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by journalist John Carreyrou.  And a movie about this situation is in the making with Jennifer Lawrence playing Holmes.

We watched the documentary with a group of friends and the discussion after was certainly lively:

Were the initial intentions of Holmes positive and ethical?  

If so, when did she cross the line into unethical behavior?  

Why did she not demonstrate any empathy toward all of the people who were hurt and lost out when the company closed?

Watching this about Theranos reminded me of the documentary Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room and interestingly they were made by the same director.  In fact, Jeffrey Skilling, one of the senior leaders, was just released from prison last February after 12 years.  For many years, I had my management students was the Enron documentary  because it was a great example of how culture starts at the top (both good and bad) and demonstrated the power of the reward system.  I often say:  People behave in ways that are rewarded.

Another way to say this:  If you want to understand behaviors, examine the reward system.  So many reward systems are dysfunctional.  This was certainly the case with Enron.

People are not perfect.  We make mistakes and we are tempted.  But be awake.  When you feel the dark side of the ego creeping up, take notice and watch out.  Resist.  Do the right thing.  It will be interesting to watch how the college-admissions scandal continues to play out.

The legacy we leave is the life we lead. —Jim Kouzes

What legacy are we leaving?

What behaviors are we modeling especially for the people we care about the most?