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Thursday, June 2, 2022

How Plain Talk Helps You "Walk the Walk"

Brett Beasley
Notre Dame Center for Ethical Leadership
Originally posted April 2022

Here is an excerpt:

How Unclear Values Cloud Our Moral Vision

Was Orwell right? Some may disagree with his take on the link between bad writing and bad politics. But it appears that Orwell's theory applies well to something he never considered: Corporate values statements. A new study shows that unclear writing in values statements matters. Unclarity sends a signal that a corporation can't be trusted. And, according to the study's authors, it's a reliable signal, too. They find that corporations that hide behind fuzzy, unclear values often do have something to hide.

The team of researchers behind the study, led by David Markowitz (Oregon), considered the values statements of 188 S&P 500 manufacturing companies. Markowitz was joined by Maryam Kouchaki (Northwestern), Jeffrey T. Hancock (Stanford), and Francesca Gino (Harvard).

They drew inspiration from earlier studies that had shown that companies with negative annual earnings write in a less clear manner in their reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). They reasoned that a similar process might occur with ethics as well.

Together the team was able to chronicle which companies had ethics infractions (like environmental violations, fraud, and anticompetitive activity). They also determined which codes of conduct were "linguistically obfuscated." These codes were full of abstraction, jargon, and long, overly complex explanations.

The results of the study proved their hypothesis correct: Companies with ethics infractions did resort to unclear language in order to hide them.

The researchers began to ask additional questions. They wanted to know if unclear language actually works. Does it effectively hide a company's problems? They showed corporate values statements to study participants and asked about their perceptions of the companies behind them. The participants saw the companies with clearly-written values statements as more moral, warmer, and more trustworthy, compared to those with jargon-laden values statements.

The Deception Spiral

Then the researchers decided to go a step further. They had shown that unclear language is often a consequence of unethical behavior. Now they wanted to see if it could cause unethical behavior as well. This would help them determine if something like the vicious cycle Orwell theorized really could exist.

This time, they took their work to the lab. They showed study participants values statements and then handed participants a list with scrambled words like “TTISRA” and “LONSEM.” They asked participants to unscramble the words and gave them opportunities to earn money. They introduced an element of competition as well. They could earn bonuses for unscrambling a greater number of words than 80% of the participants in their group.

At the same time, the researchers laid a trap. “TTISRA,” could be unscrambled to spell “ARTIST.” “LONSEM” could become “LEMONS.” But they included some words like OPOER, ALVNO, and ANHDU, which do not spell a word no matter how participants rearranged the letters. This trap enabled them to measure whether people cheated during the activity. If the participants said they unscramble the words without solutions, the researchers concluded they must have cheated in reporting their score.

The participants who had seen the unclear statements were more likely to cave to the temptation. Those who had seen the clear statement tended to stay on the moral path. Most importantly, this meant that the researchers had found clear support for a cycle similar to the one Orwell had described. This "deception spiral" as they call it, meant that unethical behavior can lead to unclear statements about values. And unclear statements about values can, in turn, contribute even more to unethical behavior.