Bi-moral brain

8 Jul

Do we have a Bi-moral brain?

Why do basically decent people behave badly? What is behaving badly? Who decides what is good or bad? How does this show-up in the workplace?

Is the issue really one of consequences?

At one extreme the individual has no sense of consequence. This is not immorality but amorality. The person does not know why actions are seen as wrong; that there is recognition of error is not because of a personal appreciation of an ethical base but by being told it is bad or because of punishment, perhaps his or her liberty being taken away. In days of old this would be described as Satan taking a hold of the soul. The nett impact on society is a negative one, irrespective of motive. The person behaves against prevailing norms of morality. The fact standards change over time are irrelevant to the amoral brain, it will not take them into consideration under any circumstances. Activities are undertaken without reference to other people’s expectations. Do some bosses feel any actions are acceptable to achieve a result? Do bankers care as long as the targets are met and bonuses paid?

Perhaps there are very few individuals who are totally amoral. Similarly there are few people who are totally good, not least because our notions of good are constantly changing, and good for one group won’t be for another. Most certainly there are many people who want to be good. However, to give a simple example, a deeply devout and well behaved Christian woman would not meet the dress standards demanded by fundamentalist Muslims.

Why do some people only act in ways which are perceived to be excellent? Inevitably, there will be a number of different motivations for each person and there may be overlaps and multiple reasons. For many it will be a matter of their own morality or at least the general morality of their society. This is not exclusively a religious model. There are millions of non-believers who behave very well; indeed, there are many amongst the pious who commit crimes and act badly. Morality cannot be described in a straight line, as an absolute right or wrong, so it is important to consider intent. Was it a selfish, mean spirited or vindictive act?

Most people consider consequences due to their concern for other people, other creatures, property or the world in which we live. If there is a reaction for every action should we not always think about consequential impact? Not for ourselves and the consequences for us but for the implications for those affected. The best amongst us do automatically. Science is discovering new knowledge each day, so the appropriate behaviour of yesterday may now be seen as adversely affecting someone or something. Smoking now is generally perceived to be anti-social whereas only twenty years ago it was a more acceptable practice. Burning coal was not thought to be a problem until recently. Slavery was legal just a few generations ago. Conversely, making staff redundant in Japan was a dishonourable act but is now common.

Linked to the perception of other people is our self-interest. We want to be liked, accepted and praised. Knowing the parameters of conduct means a person can construct a personal modus operandi to meet the requirements, irrespective of personal beliefs or desires. Naturally, if this leads to positions of responsibility, and the pragmatic forces are overtaken by more instinctive behaviours, the consequences are greater; police officers who act criminally, priests who abuse children and accountants who act fraudulently may be ejected from social circles, imprisoned and dismissed from their profession.

Very few of us are at either extreme of this continuum of behaviour. This is not about moral standards per se but why we act as we do. What stops us adopting the mores of society or makes us deliberately abuse them or completely ignore them?

The majority of people are somewhere in the middle ground, perhaps tending to one end of the axis or the other. The thesis is generally we know right from wrong but chose to select the incorrect answer despite knowing  how we should react; the second aspect of the bi-moral brain takes over. Given we don’t live in a world beset by crime it must be under reasonable control or it only dominates in less significant matters.

Can we group the influences? Perhaps, there are five broad categories.

Firstly, social responsibilities are highly influential for the good brain to prevail.

There are laws which we presume are enacted for our good and for others. We know, therefore, it is wrong to steal, fight, murder or drive too quickly. Well, perhaps even the best of us err a little behind the wheel of a car but we know high speed is dangerous for ourselves and others and, therefore, merely drift above the speed limit.

We are educated and directed to certain styles and norms. Parents, teachers and mentors assist us to understand what and why and how. Then we observe them, in particular, and other adults in action. When we achieve adulthood we rarely are conscious of our responsibilities as role models but it is crucial for youngsters around us; observation is a powerful tool of inculcation.

We become mature but never fully developed. No-one ever stops learning and importantly setting personal principles. Our growth can ensure we take personal responsibility for our actions and those of our loved ones. Imitation is very impactful. We ape the actions of people we respect. If our heroes are immature and careless that is the style we will replicate. Similarly, the dynamic of the group or society in which we live is critical. Live amongst thieves and a thief you will be; observe total unemployment and you will not seek to find a job, although this is not necessarily immoral, merely an expectation. Work under managers who behave defensively, lie, fudge figures, treat customers dismissively or bully and we are more likely to replicate these actions.

Our behaviour is contextual. Most graphically, norms are massively altered at times of war. Never take a life becomes take as many as you can of the opposition. However much we have been taught not to murder the other moral brain takes over. A trivial example reflects housekeeping standards. If you live in a tip the obvious inclination is to perpetuate the mayhem. Linked is the reaction to time. Busy people find time to do many things; they manage their availability, even though there could be a valid excuse. Lazy people justify, take short cuts and make omissions – the wrong side of the bi-moral brain in action.

Family and honour can trigger both sides of the bi-moral brain. Positively the care, protection, love, education and nurturing are forces for great family life. This most horribly can go wrong, for example, when parents kill their daughters because it is felt dishonour has been brought on the family. This reaction is anathema for most families but is an immensely powerful emotion in certain societies. It may be a cultural difference but is it one we can accept in Britain or America? How does a father’s love turn into such an overwhelming need to eradicate her existence? Can a girl falling in love with someone from outside of her culture be a capital crime? Who holds judgement and what if there is a mistake? In our terms, this may be an entirely irrational and unacceptable solution.

There are other social effects. Humour can go badly wrong. Seeking to prove one’s wit and brilliance can slide into hurt. Caustic comments, purportedly for fun are capable of wounding. Mickey-taking and teasing do, on occasions go too far. Children may not know when to draw the line. Seeing someone suffer why does the humourist not stop? Why does the brain not send cease signals? Or is there an absorbing mechanism which takes in the signs and re-sends carry on messages? Is it a power play in the workplace?

Art, in its various forms, stimulates and provokes. Films displaying violence may be imitated. The implicit message is, this is not unusual, it does happen. A song can sound as if it is condoning the use of illegal and mind altering substances. If the brain isn’t able to sift the intentions of the creator there may be undesired outcomes.

The second category is physical aspects of mankind’s make-up.

Testosterone levels can play havoc. Given men are primed to procreate it is not a complete surprise that they succumb to temptation. Is adultery a conscious act or a natural reaction, which for some men means there is, in effect, no moral brain limiter? Is it really about planting the human seed? Are women naturally trying to find a mate who fulfils all of her inbred needs?

Adrenalin stirs the body to such a degree that, occasionally, rationality is lost. People become so hyped up, reason is lost. Broader perspectives are ignored and the immediacy of the issue is totally dominant. Boxers are most successful if the adrenalin is controlled and focused into a strategic fight. If they get angry technique is lost and with it the bout. If the logical brain is active the effectiveness of the boxer is enhanced. It isn’t about immorally hurting the opponent; it is a moral battle of a healthy contest requiring skill and ability. Competition can create unhealthy relationships at work; self-interest rather than business priorities dominate. Yet there are organisations which foster this approach, “Let the devil take the hindmost”; only the hardest, emotionally resilient and focused survive.

Category three is instinct and unthinking behaviours.

Any form of madness or insanity will mean actions can be outside of expected normality. However, there has to be some debate about who is truly mad and what is madness? Is it lunacy if a person’s sense of right is dramatically affected by the death of someone much loved? Is it not just their particular version of sane? Can we apply moral judgements to someone who cannot make them for themselves? If the statistics are correct and at least one in four of us have a mental condition during our life, is this now a predominant problem for society.

If someone suffers pain and the body reacts, is that a form of temporary madness? On the sports field we see players retaliate after a bad foul? The retaliator is always sent from the pitch but should we blame him or the initiator of the trouble? The red mist comes down and punches are thrown. Is this a case of the immoral brain instantly taking over? I should, of course, like to apologise to the only player I ever hit on a football pitch. My only excuse is you hurt me – and I do recognise how pathetic that sounds thirty years later. I contend the red mist is the physical manifestation of a brief insanity. I am permanently mad, so no excuse there.

People are insular; look after one’s own first, ‘Charity begins at home’. These are notions which lead to a lack of co-operation and short-termism. In an attempt to solve a problem and a refusal to help others the wrong brain functions. Similarly, there is unhealthy competition. On an individual basis people cheat, seek to take advantage and fail to see how working together is more successful and more enjoyable.

Ambition can lead to the wrong type of competition. Rather than gain promotion at work by being a team player some employees try to eradicate meaningful opposition. Belittling, gossiping and abandonment are only going to be effective in the shortest of terms. Senior management will quickly see reality and then there will be just one loser. The immoral brain is also the counterproductive one. Allied to this urge to move upwards, or even retain the current job, is the strong inclination to cover up errors and refuse to admit culpability. This action is re-enforced if the management are seen as reactive, bullying and protectionist.

Errors occur due to ignorance. This is not, of itself, a fault but people guess. They know they don’t know an answer but continue anyway. This is the wrong brain looking for an easy solution. To ask is to admit fallibility and may be judged unfavourably.

Category four is unthinking negativity.

A primary driver for mankind is fear. It was a fear of predators, starvation and rival tribes; the fittest survived. Today we fear less dramatic consequences typically, although there are still wars around the globe. More likely today fears relate to failure, loss, being found to have acted immorally, missing financial liabilities or letting other people down. So, we lie, prevaricate and hide. These are hardly the actions of a morally upstanding person. It may mean we keep our jobs, spouses, houses, friends and respect – until we are revealed. Then there is a multiplier effect. Cowardice will be spotted.

Opposite a weakling may be a bully. He or she acts because they can. There is no fear of retaliation or they would stop. This means it is even worse than someone who gets into a fight about a principle. The bully is arrogant. So is the braggart, the egotist who is self-centred and self-absorbed. I am, I did, I will be… probably friendless quite quickly. Conceit is an unattractive facet of character. However, these traits in normal conversation may translate into being a callous and uncaring member of society. Asking, ‘what is in it for me?’ is in itself an obnoxious act, an immoral one.

Some people are spiteful. Possibly as a method of petty revenge or self-amusement, spite is snide and deceitful. It may be caused by a sense of self-pity or envy. It is a way to feel in some measure of control; “I put salt in the boss’s coffee” or “I ripped up a birthday card before it was opened”. Small minded and wrong minded. A disproportionate amount of effort which could be directed so much better.

Jealousies emanate in numerous ways but rarely are they positive (unless they are positively horrid).  Described as the “green eyed monster” and, for most people, monsters are never a happy image. It is an emotion and, as such, can override sense and reason. It occupies the immoral brain.

The fifth category is personal ethics or lack of them.

If people have beliefs it will influence their actions and, possibly, greatly. It is easy to have principles when things are going well. At work the good employee is diligent even when there is nobody to watch. Cricketers are fond of talking about the Spirit of the Game but then push at the edges of cheating.

The ethical person has a conscience. It is the inner voice of the moral brain. The difference between those who follow the advice and those who do not is the volume of the metaphorical voice is in the head. The amoral person is either ethically deaf or the conscience is on mute.

The belief system may be religious, it could be piety. A
deep belief in God and his teachings will guide behaviour. Still not everyone can follow the lead perfectly. However, it is a sound base for being thoughtful and considerate. However, social awareness is not merely for the devout. A simple test is will my actions harm anyone? Or better, is there any potential for it to harm anyone? Are the outcomes foreseeable? The answer has to be honest and not fudged at all.

Sometimes we just know that something, some problem has a right and a wrong answer and how we must react. To then listen to the immoral brain is a conscious abandonment of personal principle and cannot be justified, even to oneself. What is the motive for such dismissal of principle? Is there a bigger principle at play? Will there be shame, embarrassment and regret? What is the real motivation for this internal treachery?

Alcohol never causes people to act badly but it does feed the immoral brain and thwarts the best efforts of the moral brain. The greater truth in this statement is alcohol is not the problem. The inclination has to exist and a readiness to ignore the consequences. It is not the devil’s drink; the immoral brain is the devil’s tool. This is all metaphorical and we should not burn witches – that would be bad.

Mass murderers suppress any facet of morality, is a neat and tidy explanation. However, the Yorkshire Ripper was a normal family man 98% of his waking hours. Nobody saw the brutality of the man. Some killers stop after a while and some never re-start, some go back to it eventually. They plan, so must see the potential consequences. They lie and obfuscate. They see the potential consequences. Yet there is a greater need – to kill and to kill again. They cannot repel the entreaties of the immoral brain.

In most cases work doesn’t mean such extremes; it is all relative. Unreasonable deadlines, harassment, suppression of innovation, taking credit for the success of others and unfair dismissal are examples of the way some managers and colleagues act and, yet, still expect blind loyalty, long hours and prodigious output. In times of economic difficulties, staff stay in jobs which they hate but once there is an upturn walk away. The poor managers are amazed at this apparent disloyalty.

We all tell fibs. We all a liable to small lapses but the potential consequences are not huge. Still we feel uncomfortable if we are challenged and found wanting. Ultimately only one person can ensure your behaviours are decent, as we perceive them in today’s morality – you, if you live in the moral side of your brain.

The Value of Employment Legislation

25 Jun

Does our existing employment legislation have a benefit for businesses? Not according to IoD and others, for whom the short-term is everything and people are truly a resource for use and disposal.

I recently gave support to a woman in Durham facing dismissal. There had been a process failure at her place of work and the CEO’s reaction was not objective and positive. Without a shadow of doubt, had there been an “At will” contract in place she would have been dismissed instantly. A little constrained by the implications of employment law the CEO merely had HR send a letter confirming that there would be a formal disciplinary meeting and it was so grave as to be Gross Misconduct, possibly leading to dismissal.

There had been no investigation, nor rational discussion. Thankfully, sense prevailed and corrective actions taken. There was no disciplinary action, so the woman and her boss have renewed a very good working relationship and together faults are being addressed. The brake applied by the law meant the business didn’t lose a really valuable member of staff and they did realise their processes weren’t perfect.

The pitfalls of dismissal processes

25 Apr

Dismissing people without fear of Unfair Dismissal just became easier. People need to have two years’ continuous employment before they qualify to make a claim.

So, a huge collective sigh in the business world; no need to worry about pay outs; no need to follow a pesky process which takes time; no need to carry out investigations; no time consuming preparations for tribunals; firm decision making and move on.  Is it really that simple? Perhaps not.

What are the advantages of always using an open, thorough and fair process for any issues regarding employment and its potential conclusion?

  • Employees believe the business to be professional and equitable. Even in times of high unemployment, in which people are fearful of dismissal, surely any company wants motivated staff. Perceived unfairness will act against this. When the economy picks up the poorly managed organisation will lose the best people or need to pay high salaries.
  • Ensures the wrong people are not dismissed, leaving those who may have damaged the business in situ, able to repeat their errors.
  • The prospect of claims for Unfair Dismissal may have been reduced but the threat of discrimination accusations remains unchanged. If the time for preparation of Unfair Dismissal feels daunting, imagine the scale and complexity that may occur to defend a claim, for example, for Race Discrimination.
  • Avoids the much greater adverse PR from a discrimination claim. Corporate credibility is easily lost and only won back over a much longer period.

Legally compliant Disciplinary and Redundancy Procedures are needed anyway, so why not apply them?

Wrongly applying changes in Employment Law

16 Apr

A little knowledge can be a bad thing.

We can expect an amount of confusion regarding Unfair Dismissal claims over the coming months. Too many business managers and individuals will have seen the headlines in newspapers and on TV, that the qualifying period to be able to submit a claim has been raised from twelve months to two years continuous employment. This change has been requested by business groups, to increase the confidence organisations have and allow more recruitment, not as a step towards no protection for employees. Time will tell if this is the thin end of the wedge.

So, do we all understand the principle of two years/ How many people recognise it is not retrospective? Let’s try to give examples to be explicit;

  • Anyone joining an employer from 6th April 2012 must work for that organisation for two years before acquiring the right to claim Unfair Dismissal.
  • A person who has been employed for more than one year and less than two years’ service continues to enjoy this protection now.
  • Someone with nine months service will gain the right to claim Unfair Dismissal in three months’ time i.e. when the twelve months qualifying period is reached.

Managers may err, and dismissed staff may not pursue their rights, through naivety or  ignorance. Assisting people threatened with dismissal, this should be a straightforward issue to resolve -if I am asked by either party.

Personal Advocacy

4 Apr

Faced with the threat of redundancy, the prospect of disciplinary action or the loneliness of job searching, for many people there are few options for help. Solicitors are expensive, Trade Unions aren’t allowed to recruit members with existing issues and organisations such as Citizens Advice Bureau give good overview support but not the in-depth assistance sometimes needed.

Since leaving corporate employment I have been able to guide numerous friends and family of friends through these sorts of issues, and they have been able to at least improve the situation in all cases, if not totally eradicate the issue. As I have written before, too many companies fail to have decent processes (even if they have taken advice) or apply them poorly and, often, hide behind the ACAS advice regarding representation and I am excluded from meetings.

Recently, I was permitted into a meeting at which the manager was attempting to give my friend notice as he was on a temporary contract. My friend was working full time, performing the full role like his colleagues and had been doing so for FOUR years. I am delighted to say the manager came quickly to understand my friend had acquired permanent employment status and formally agreed it in writing a few days later.

In another case a young lady had been found to be misusing the internet on the company system and in paid overtime. She didn’t deny it to me but the company made a very, very poor effort at the investigation and formal meetings. At one point the manager (doing both investigation and chairing the disciplinary meeting!) said the decision to dismiss had been taken by the Managing Director. I pointed out that in their own procedure, the MD would take any appeal and this was mildly pre-judgemental. The manager literally ran from the room shouting, “I can’t talk to you”.  Not surprisingly, we reached an accommodation about which my young friend was happy.

We are now going to make available our services, on a commercial basis but not in a way that makes it impossible for people to access it. If anyone is aware of someone who may need help, please give them my number. If only businesses had the sense to ask for our help first and avoid the amateurish behaviour I hate having to challenge.

Fair and seen to be fair

30 Mar

Why do managers in some businesses fail to behave professionally. Is it arrogance, carelessness or ignorance?

When business representative organisations, such as IoD and CBI, claim there is too much bureaucracy the most often quoted example is employment legislation; their frustration, at needing to treat people fairly and take care when seeking to make them unemployed, is evident. Collective and individual consultation takes time and effort when there are important things to do like monitoring targets, chasing suppliers and glitzing customers. Too frequently, managers asked to list their responsibilities forget people or put them well down the list; people are a human resource to utilise, as any other facility in their control.

Over the last couple of years I have been asked to advise and support a not insignificant number of friends and friends-of-friends faced by formal procedures which could lead to job loss. My corporate employment has been in large, high-profile companies very keen to manage well, so it has been educational. Inevitably, some inconsistencies occur because managers are people too. Understanding this does not excuse it.


  • A large multi-national company has a very thorough process for headcount reduction, drawn up by a highly credible consultancy. So what could go wrong? In short, the pressure of personal relationships does. Rather than follow process one particular senior manager, keen to assuage his own guilt, called two people into his office separately, without notification, with no offer of representation, no witness and irrespective of any script blurted out the words ‘You are redundant’. All of which leaves the HR department trying to pick up the pieces.
  • A business of 250 staff initiated disciplinary action against one young man for misuse of the internet, during paid overtime. I was allowed to attend the investigation meeting. It was so well attended there was even a secretary to take verbatim notes. The accused actually admitted the offence to me, so we were fighting an uphill-battle to save his job. The good news was that the Disciplinary Procedure stated, ‘Gross misconduct may lead to dismissal’. Further, ‘Any appeal will be heard by the Managing Director’. The senior person carrying out the investigation was also going to be the chair of the formal disciplinary meeting (poor practice in itself). It is worth adding the company had taken advice from an HR professional. Early into the discussion I referred to the statement which meant dismissal wasn’t an inevitable outcome. The lead manager said dismissal would be the result. Naturally, my reply was to remind him it would be his decision and he had discretion. ‘No’, he replied, the MD had already decided! As soon as I began to point out all of the errors made, this guy literally ran out of the room with his hands over his ears shouting that he wasn’t allowed to talk to me. Later, this manager rang the young man faced with dismissal and tried to blame me for the meeting breaking up. Strange to relate, they were then prepared to negotiate a small release package.
  • A young woman, who had never had an appraisal, was dismissed without the right of appeal for failing to meet sales targets. Ironically, she had met the targets given at the start of the year but, without her knowledge, her objectives had been changed.

These are just three examples of poor behaviour and more often than not I am precluded from internal meetings. The management’s justification, and one I have used previously, is the ACAS guidelines indicate individuals can only be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative. Whether the exclusion of any other type of representation is to protect organisations from the attendance of solicitors or to promote union membership, the effect of my exclusion is to abandon vulnerable people in a situation in which their most fundamental rights are being challenged. In truth, if a company follows good processes I would be their best witness and I am very clear with individuals if I assess their position or claim as wrong.


  • Putting in place good procedure is not difficult. It does require a desire to treat people well and avoid tribunals.
  • Consistent application of processes is absolutely critical. Training, support and scripts are of paramount importance.
  • Proper representation helps the process rather than hinders it.
  • ACAS must reconsider its guidance regarding the people who can accompany people in disciplinary or redundancy situations.