The Power of Noticing, Bounded Ethicality, and Being a Great Leader
By Kyle Hubbard, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Philosophy | September 16, 2016
The Ethics and Governance forum recently hosted Max H. Bazerman, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and Co-Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, for his presentation, "The Power of Noticing, Bounded Ethicality, and Becoming a Great Leader."
Professor Bazerman emphasized the important and sometimes overlooked role that noticing plays in making ethical decisions. Bazerman claimed that many members of a company or organization do not aim to do bad things. But the real problem is that most of them fail to notice questionable behavior that they see others doing, or they fail to notice when key pieces of data are missing and thus they fail to make good decisions.
To support his claim about the importance of noticing when something is amiss, Professor Bazerman led the audience through an exercise. One exercise was a video he prefaced by asking the audience to count the number of passes a group of people made with a basketball during the duration of the clip. After we spent our time counting passes, he asked if anyone saw anything out of place. Only two audience members saw a woman carrying an umbrella walking across the screen. After showing the video again with the audience prepared for the woman, everyone saw it. Bazerman claimed that this is the power of noticing. Very few of us are capable of seeing something awry or amiss when we are looking for something else. He argued that it also demonstrates the power that leaders have in preventing or helping others to notice when something is wrong. Once he told us to be on the lookout for something out of place, we all saw it. In the same way, the rules, procedures, and expectations that leaders establish can either diminish or enhance members' abilities to make good decisions.
To give flesh to the power of noticing when something is amiss, Professor Bazerman offered a couple of well-known examples (Bernie Madoff & the Challenger explosion) and a personal one. The personal one was most interesting because it showed how even someone who thinks about the ethics of organizations can fail to fully recognize when something is wrong, and thus does not act properly. When consulting for the Department of Justice's case against the tobacco industry, Professor Bazerman was asked to change his testimony by a young DOJ lawyer. He thought it a strange request, but it was only weeks later after reading the account of someone else who came forward to report a similar request, that he realized he should have said something at the time of the original incident. He reported that the experience opened his eyes to how easy it is to not fully notice when something is wrong even though he should have known it was wrong and should have acted upon that knowledge. His failure to notice came from his confusion about the request, a desire not to get the young lawyer in trouble, as well as the fact that he was not immediately sure where to go with the information. From this story, he concluded that not only is it important for individuals to notice and act when something is wrong, but organizations and businesses need to empower their members and employees to notice by establishing a culture that rewards noticing when something is wrong and acting upon that knowledge.
Professor Bazerman's presentation illustrates the ways that the Ethics in Governance forum seeks to encourage ethical thinking in organizations throughout New Hampshire. For further reflections on ethics and business please see other posts on our blog or attend the next lecture in the speaker series.