August 20, 2018
By Kelsey Medeiros, PhD
As football season quickly approaches, I’m reminded of my childhood Saturdays spent glued to the television. While most kids in my neighborhood watched cartoons in their pajamas, I sat in my Penn State cheerleading outfit, pom-poms in hand, cheering on the Nittany Lion football team. Joe Paterno, walking the sidelines in his khakis and oversized glasses, was my idol. In kindergarten, when we were asked to write letters to our heroes – I wrote to Joe Pa. My childhood visits to Happy Valley were filled with trips to the campus creamery for a scoop of Peachy Paterno, which I ate, wide eyed, as I strolled through campus hoping to spot the legend briskly walking down Curtin Road.
For many, it likely sounds strange to reminisce so positively about a man who has become a villain in a horrific tragedy. I can tell you, it is strange. Even as I type, I feel simultaneously ashamed and nostalgic. Despite the many years that have passed since reports of his actions surfaced, I am still at a loss for how to manage these conflicting emotions.
This internal conflict is not unique to me and Joe Pa, or the many other Penn Staters who struggle with these incompatible responses. It’s likely that some time in your life you have known someone whom you respected who shocked you by behaving badly. Maybe it was a friend, a leader, a parent, or even someone you would call a hero. Maybe it wasn’t as tragic as Joe Pa’s decision but was a mistake or bad decision nonetheless. Regardless, the response we feel when those we respect behave badly is similar – confusing and unsettling.
When ethical scandals emerge in organizations, we often think and talk about the reactions of leaders. Leaders are responsible for removing or rehabilitating the ones who behaved badly. Leaders worry about the perceptions of their organizations, their company’s culture, and how to prevent something like this from ever happening again. But, who is often lost in these discussions are those of us who just had our heroes knocked down to our own, human, fallible level. Employees, customers, and fans will struggle with how to process what has happened and how to adjust their view of the individuals involved and, in some cases, their view of the world.
In psychology, we use the word schema to represent our understanding for how the world works and how those around us fit in it. Our schemas impact how we consume, process, and absorb information. They facilitate information interpretation, allowing us to understand what is unfolding and also predict what might occur in a given situation based on our previous experiences. Without a schema, we would constantly have to reassess each individual in our lives and guess how they would interact in a particular environment in order to set our expectations for an event. This would be exhausting! Not only would it make us much slower to act, it would also take up valuable real estate in our minds that would prevent us from adding and interpreting new information. A schema, then, allows us to process information quickly and provides a framework for making sense of it.
Individuals we respect occupy an important place in our personal schemas. Our schemas tell us what to expect of them. When they violate our schema of the world, we have to find some way to incorporate this new information alongside our historically positive views of them. This is where the dissonance, or conflict, emerges. When those we hold in high esteem suddenly violate how we expect them to behave, we have to then reconcile our views of these people with reality.
This coincides with our natural tendency to group individuals into categories – good or bad. Or if you prefer Santa’s terminology – naughty or nice. When we hold strong positive views of someone who then behaves badly, we have to decide if we are going to change our attitude (put them on the naughty list), or keep them in the good category, which requires us to downplay their transgression. We may even choose to justify their behaviors in order to keep them on our nice list. Regardless, this can be a difficult process as, at its heart, it is challenging our world view.
These circumstances force us to reassess a set of complex information, adjust our schemas appropriately, and act on our new perspective. Processing the complex information is difficult for many because it removes the tidy lists in which we have organized our lives and those in it. With Joe Pa, I had to reassess if I could still believe in all the good that he did. Can I still recognize him as a legendary coach? Can I still see him as the inspiration he was to me as a child?
How should I feel about him now?
These are challenging questions to answer. And, many people ask themselves these very same questions when a respected leader or other organizational member behaves badly. Companies must be alert to the raw feelings of organizational members immediately following a publicized issue of misconduct. Ethical violations, in many ways, are traumatic events that require substantial processing and recovery.
What can organizations do to help their employees navigate the recovery process?
The Ethics Advantage Team