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posted on 06 July 2017

The Ethical Dimensions Of Power

Written by

An Investigator's Guide To Ethics, Part 3

Have you ever been in a position of power? Did being in such a position have any effect on you, positive or negative? Did your notice if your friends, peers, and/or followers started to treat you differently? How did you feel when you noticed the change in those around you? Do you think being in a position of power can subtly change your morals and ethics so that you are no longer the person you used to be?

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It seems that countless corporate executives are involved in scandals today. From alleged sexual harassment claims at Uber and Fox News to manipulation of data at Wells Fargo and Volkswagen, corporate misconduct is at the forefront of the news cycle. Can we, as investigators, find a common thread as to why these incidents occur and if so, can we further determine how best to investigate allegations similar to the ones we are reading about?

In a survey conducted by Clemson University, CEOs were asked if they should be the moral leader of their organization and 99.7% of them agreed with the statement.[1] In theory, these CEOs clearly believe they set the ethical and moral tone for their organizations. What these CEOs fail to realize, however, is that power affects their brains in unconscious ways causing them to change the way they make decisions and interact with people.

Dacher Kelchner, co-director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley, has found some interesting correlations between power and behavior.

“In the behavioral research I have conducted over the last 20 years, I’ve uncovered a disturbing pattern: While people usually gain power through traits and actions that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, openness, fairness and sharing; when they start to feel powerful or enjoy a position of privilege, those qualities begin to fade. The powerful are more likely than other people to engage in rude, selfish and unethical behavior."[2]

A person who worked with an investigator’s suspect may have a completely different perception than someone who worked for your suspect based on the power dynamic.


power affects their brains in unconscious ways causing them to change the way they make decisions and interact with people.


Interestingly enough, researchers have also established that simply simulating power is enough to alter people’s behavior. Joris Lammers, Diederik Stapel and Adam Galinsky designed experiments to show how morality differs among the powerful and the powerless. Participants were randomly assigned roles (prime minister or public servant) and presented with a moral and/or ethical dilemma such as intentionally failing to report all revenue to tax authorities, violating traffic laws, and possessing a stolen bicycle. The participants were then randomly chosen to rate the acceptability of the act if someone else did it or if they did it themselves.

The results were strikingly different.

“The researchers found that compared to participants without power, powerful participants were stricter in judging others’ moral transgressions but more lenient in judging their own: power increases hypocrisy, meaning that the powerful show a greater discrepancy between what they practice and what they preach."[3]

As an investigator, you shouldn’t be surprised if the person in a position of power is very harsh on employees who break the rules, but fails to be as aggressive with punishment when it comes to their own transgressions.

As executives move up in their organizational hierarchy, they can easily develop a sense of entitlement. Employees will cater to their every need and people will be naturally reluctant to disagree with someone who is higher in the organizational structure. To illustrate this point, compare and contrast what happens when you receive an email from one of your executives as opposed to someone who is a peer or is lower in the organizational hierarchy. Who do you respond to first? Professors at Columbia University were able to recreate Enron Corporation’s entire organizational hierarchy by studying email response time knowing that people will respond to higher ups quicker than peers or subordinates.[4]


As executives move up in their organizational hierarchy, they can easily develop a sense of entitlement.


Power also has an effect on your physiology, particularly in the way the brain functions.

“The powerful have decreased recognition of others’ concerns, allowing them to throw their weight around with-out qualm."[5]

While decreasing your ability to empathize with others, power also breeds increased narcissism, which is fed by the release of dopamine in your brain.

“Dopamine connects with receptors in the striatum to help commit a person to an action and sets off a reaction that can lead to feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. Empire builders get their dopamine hits through activities that pump up ego."[6]

Likewise when someone or something threatens your formal and informal power levels, the subsequent stress caused by the unbalanced equilibrium causes different brain chemicals to be released leading to a drastically different reaction.

“When we experience acute stress, these chemicals - including cortisol and norepinephrine - heighten our reactive tendencies by muting our reflective tendencies, leading to everything from anxiety to aggression to depression."[7]

When you react instead of reflect, you tend to rely more on instinctual decisions, which are often based in stereotypes. The “fight or flight" response can also be initiated which leads to self-preservation as well as myopic vision. Before the executive realizes it, ethical dilemmas are transformed into self-serving frames such as, “What do I have to do to preserve my position?" The need to hang on to power can lead to ethical fading, a process by which ethical dimensions are eliminated from a decision.[8]

Scott Marcello was KPMG’s top audit official and perceived as the person who was going to restore the luster to KPMG’s audit business, which had been rated below other competing firms by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). The PCAOB is a non-profit entity that reports directly to the Securities and Exchange Commission and is charged with overseeing the audits of public companies in order to protect the investing public.

From 2010 to 2014, the rate of KPMG’s deficient audits as identified by the PCAOB rose from 22% to 54%.[9] In 2014, KPMG’s deficiency rate was the highest when compared to the other top three accounting firms and KPMG’s deficiency rate was 18%-33% higher than the three other competitors.[10] Marcello, promoted in 2015, was tasked with improving KPMG’s auditing performance.[11]


ethical dilemmas are transformed into self-serving frames ...


While Marcello pursued improvement, KPMG hired a former PCAOB employee who allegedly provided information to Marcello and others indicating which audits the PCAOB planned to scrutinize in it’s upcoming annual inspections. Having such information would allow Marcello and other KPMG officials to review the audits prior to inspection and ensure that these audits were of the highest standards. Marcello and others allegedly failed to report these sensitive disclosures to appropriate personnel at KPMG, which led to their termination as well as a public statement by KPMG disclosing the events that transpired.[12]


... can lead to ethical fading, a process by which ethical dimensions are eliminated from a decision.


As with many executives, the desire to succeed is strong. Occasionally, people will be presented with an ethical dilemma but instead of seeing it for what it is, their brain will mask the information/event in such a way that the ethical problem will disappear. Suddenly something that could be deemed unethical and potentially illegal is seen as a competitive advantage that will not only help the organization, but also help the individual rise even further. In these moments, your brain, if you don’t stop it, will remove your ethics from the decision-making equation allowing you to choose the option that best serves your interests.

President Abraham Lincoln once said,

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power."[13]

If you, as an investigator, can understand the unconscious impact of power on the brain and in decision-making, then you might be able to better investigate an executive whose ethics have faded away.


[1] Wueste, D.; Knapp, J.; & Witte, J. (2008). The National Survey of Business Ethics, Robert J. Rutland Institute of Ethics, Clemson University, 2008. Taken from the Internet on April 16, 2017 at https://www.clemson.edu/ethics/events/old_events/ceo_survey_key_points_revised.pdf

[2] Kelchner, D. (2016). Don’t Let Power Corrupt You, Harvard Business Review, October 2016. Taken from the Internet on April 24, 2017 at https://hbr.org/2016/10/dont-let-power-corrupt-you

[3] Ariely, D. (2012). Power and Moral Hypocrisy, LinkedIn, November 2, 2012. Taken from the Internet on April 16, 2017 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20121102213700-23667182-power-and-moral-hypocrisy?trkInfo=VSRPsearchId%3A880226031473700564086%2CVSRPtargetId%3A2962%2CVSRPcmpt%3Aprimary&trk=vsrp_influencer_content_res_name

[4] Rowe, R., Creamer, G., Hershkop, S., & Stolfo, S. (n.d.). Automated social hierarchy detection through email network analysis. Proceedings of the 9th WebKDD and 1st SNA-KDD 2007 Workshop on Web Mining and Social Network Analysis - WebKDD/SNA-KDD '07.

[5] Robinson, J. (2014). This Is Your Brain On Power, Entrepreneur, April 11, 2014. Taken from the Internet on April 24, 2017 at https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/231534

[6] Ibid.

[7] DiSalvo, D. (2012). The Top 10 Brain Science And Psychology Stories of 2012, Forbes, December 23, 2012. Taken from the Internet on April 24, 2017 at https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/12/23/the-top-10-brain-science-and-psychology-stories-of-2012/5/#43c8c72e6877

[8] Bazerman, M. & Tenbrunsel, A. (2011). Blind Spots: Why We Fail To Do What’s Right And What To Do About It, Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. 30-31

[9] Rapoport, M. & Michaels, D. (2017). Fired KPMG Audit Head: How Did Scott Marcello Fall From Grace, The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2017. Taken from the internet on April 24, 2017 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/fired-kpmg-audit-head-how-did-scott-marcello-fall-from-grace-1492371198

[10] Newquist, C. (2016). KPMGs PCAOB Inspection Report Is Out And It’s Not Good, Going Concern, 2016. Taken from the Internet on April 24, 2107 at http://goingconcern.com/kpmgs-pcaob-inspection-report-out-and-its-not-good/

[11] Rapoport, M. & Michaels, D. (2017). Fired KPMG Audit Head: How Did Scott Marcello Fall From Grace, The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2017. Taken from the internet on April 24, 2017 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/fired-kpmg-audit-head-how-did-scott-marcello-fall-from-grace-1492371198

[12] Thompson, J. & Pooley, C. (2017). KPMG Fires 6 Employees Over Advance Warning On Audits, Financial Times, April 12, 2017. Taken from the Internet on April 24, 2017 at https://www.ft.com/content/d6efd3a4-1f5e-11e7-ab04428977f9

[13] Anderson, E. (2012). Abraham Lincoln: 10 Quotes To Help You Lead Today, Forbes, December 17, 2012. Taken from the Internet on April 24, 2017 at https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2012/12/17/abraham-lincoln-10-quotes-to-help-you-lead-today/#7f42bd7d110a

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