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Behavior and the Role of Unintended Consequences

Behavior and the Role of Unintended Consequences

Behavior and the Role of Unintended Consequences: Examples from Process Engineering and Bold Community Initiatives

Organizational ethics takes more than good people seeking to do good. It takes more than rules of conduct or well-understood process steps. Ethical behavior is what is shaped day in and day out by intended and, most problematic, unintended, consequences occurring as work is done. Sometimes however the effects are not known until the impact of such behavior is judged by others.

Consequences increase or decrease the likely occurrence of desired behavior now and in the future. Be alert to what the longer term effects of decisions and well-intended actions are for individuals and for the culture of an organization. Talk about what can happen as well as what did happen and evaluate the effect such impact could and/or did have. Make changes in how you set up future conditions, including working to reduce the reinforcing properties of shortcuts and quick solutions. Ethical traps are easy to fall into and none of us are immune from the fall. Here are two examples:

Removing Initiative from Process Engineering

Work processes can be difficult to navigate. If done incorrectly they lead to safety or productivity or quality issues. Your team raises questions, believing the process they are following is the wrong thing to do. You as the team leader are unclear as well. You ask your boss.

The boss, being busy, ignores your requests for help. You are told to follow process, that your concerns are ungrounded. The process is clear. In turn, you tell your team that you cannot find the answer to the questions they have, but they must do the work in any case. They still object. You are paid to figure it out and so you do.

You and your team get it wrong. The wrong process is used to make the final product. The process is missing one key ingredient that is essential but was not visible to you or to your team. You redesigned a process step that you did not understand, did the best you could, and as a result created a product that could possibly produce harm. 

No one will excuse you for such actions and you do not excuse yourself. BUT the anger and disappointment you feel toward your organization grows. Your behavior of seeking help and clarification in this case has not only been punished but the response made you feel ashamed for asking. Nevertheless, you did the wrong thing. No matter the reason, harm resulted. Behaviorally speaking, the organization has trouble on its hands now.

Confidence and commitment disappear quickly under such circumstances. The next time there is a process problem, it is less likely that the team leader will speak up and a potentially wrong process will be more likely to be followed without question. Asking questions has been punished and certainly working to fix a problem has as well.

Readers may believe that they will continue to speak up, seek the right solution, and do the right thing, regardless of what kinds of perceived threat was produced. Perhaps, but the fear of punishment suppresses what people say and do. After an event like this, there is rarely a root cause analysis of why things got so messed up. If it is understood that the team tried to do the right thing, all too often such attempts are viewed with contempt and even anger as to why the team leader at least didn’t stop and make sure they got it right. The boss rarely acknowledges that what he said could have indicated that the team was to do something they did not understand. “I would never advise that. They knew better than to just do it or even worse to make their own corrections under those circumstances. What are our quality steps all about if that is the way people are going to respond?” Read Catch 22 if you want a good laugh and information on the crazy confusion rules and blind application can create. 

Responsible actions such as seeking to understand a work process that appears flawed and working to solve the problem are both highly desired in difficult and dangerous workplaces. The breaks in the process of check and recheck occur in subtle ways when verbal consequences are applied to simple things like seeking clarity and being rebuffed. A concern about what is a good team leader can invade cultures, leading all too easily to doing the wrong thing without checking.

Other problem-solving tools may have helped them consider alternatives to acting on “guesses.” The good citizen intentions of the team could have been noted and endorsed. A thorough analysis of the effects of these blaming consequences by managers who assume that their team leaders “would know better” might allow them to see how their own behavior produced the kind of culture that suppressed asking for help. This simple story provides a rich resource for a case study on the effects of consequences at multiple steps along the way. 

Solving a Problem and Creating a Problem

Recently a consulting company was asked to reduce violence in a neighborhood that was dominated by gangs, guns and drugs. It was a big project sponsored by the mayor, the chief of police and the local citizens. It was a noble project. Citizens were afraid to go out at night—and hurried home during the day. Their lives and their children’s lives were greatly curtailed.

The solution was to install cameras on every street corner, to have patrol cars sent immediately to any signs of trouble, and to make immediate arrests for any harassing or threatening behavior. The neighborhood was consulted and a vast majority liked the ideas proposed. Before too long the gangs exited the neighborhood.

This solution included a technological design that 1) reduced privacy for the community at large for the benefit of catching people intending to do harm, and 2) allowed swift actions by police for suspicious behavior, delivering the message that gangs and, as importantly, individuals who might appear to be a possible gang member were not welcome. There were few objections–after all, who would wear underwear showing or run around late at night if not after bad outcomes? 

The work was praised by the city and the neighborhood. Neighbors were much more in control of their destiny. Violent and drug-related crimes went from a high of 89% to a low of 15% over a six month time period. The community was theirs again. There were celebrations and a return to what the neighborhood was supposed to be.

The unintended consequences of this action were what it did to freedom of movement and diversity over the short run in the neighborhood, but more telling were its effects on another neighborhood. The gangs moved there. Not so bad if you don’t live there, but for those individuals who did, this effect was monumental. Their lives were put on hold. Their children stayed home. The neighborhood became targets of aggression and violence. The answers for such problems are deep seated and require community-wide behavior change and environmental redesign at the level that might redirect the behavior of the individual gang member, as well as design in technology to catch the bad act as it occurs.

The first neighborhood was not necessarily wrong to do what they did. They most certainly did not intend to chase the gangs to another part of town; neither did they intend to make their neighborhood a hostile environment to teens who wore their clothes in what were interpreted as gang-like. That was not part of the design. They did not intend to see in a simple walk or hooded head an act of aggression where there was none. The plan was to stop crime. Anticipating that gangs might move on, taking their troubles with them to other areas in the city required a careful look at their solution for its potential immediate benefit and longer term effect on the neighborhood, individual gang members, and law-abiding citizens. Technology solved one problem. A community plan directly squarely at individuals in the gangs and outside the gangs might have helped in other ways.

The lesson here is that with the best of intentions, inhibiting or punishing constraints imposed alone do not often solve fundamental problems for the longer run. To change behavior for the greater good of all, more is needed.


Be aware that you and your team may not be considering all the issues at hand. If considered more fully, your actions might promote more robust ethical impact. Ask others to help you consider immediate and the longer term effects; always consider how consequences lead to habits and consider what you can do to create more sustainable outcomes for all. Consider innovative ways to shape new responses, reducing the reinforcing properties of gang membership or of a boss telling his team leader to “just do it”. Consider how consequences affect what you say and do, how little or how much you might push back when you see something that is not right in your view.

If you wish to establish a more ethical workplace, consider taking ADI’s 4 part Webinar series on ethics at work designed for those who are professional behavior analysts. The principles and suggestions apply to all people and work places. To learn more about workplace ethics visit http://bit.ly/1EkAOuU

Posted by Andy Lattal

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.