Thursday, June 2, 2011

Overvaluing Outcomes - Will the end justify the means?

What is your idea about results? How are you evaluating the results? Are you more interested in result and process followed to get it; or just as the old proverb says ‘End justifies the means’?

If recent trends are to be believed, there is an alarming tendency to reward results and overlook the way he/she taken to achieve it. If some projects are showing success/ a company is posting regular growth are we less concerned about the way they are achieve these results? If a medicine shows successful results for some years, will we make it as a priority to investigate, whether the company followed rigorous testing and evaluation process? 

This is not limited to an individual; sometimes the system also works in coordination by looking in to the procedure word by word and overlooks the actual intention of the procedures and policies. There are times when people look in to the policies and follow it word by word, without considering the intention of the policies. Policies are often in place to help the people associated with it. But many times system will read the policies verbally and make it sure that individual will not get any benefit. Sometimes policy can be flawed too – only satisfying the cosmetic needs of the individual but leaving the emergency needs. 

That’s why you may get a vehicle loan instantaneously but for starting a business it may never come. You may be able to get an exemption, a leave from attending something by submitting some certificates, but may not be able to get an exemption for a genuine reason. Malthus law can be modified for this purpose, if there is a possibility for anything to go wrong, the system will make sure that it will go wrong when it required the most.

There is an interesting study related to overlooking the process and concentrating on results by Bazerman and Tenbrunsel appearing in HBR’s April edition.

“Many managers are guilty of rewarding results rather than high quality decisions. An employee may make a poor decision that turns out well and be rewarded for it or a good decision that turns out poorly and be punished. Rewarding unethical decisions because they have good outcomes is a recipe for disaster over the long term.

The Harvard psychologist Fiery Cushman and his colleagues tell the story of two quick-tempered brothers, Jon and Matt, neither of whom has a criminal record. A man insults their family Jon wants to kill the guy: he pulls out and fires a gun but misses, and the target is unharmed. Matt wants only to scare the man but accidently shoots and kills him. In United States and in many other countries, Matt can expect a far more serious penalty than Jon. It is clear that laws often punish bad outcomes more aggressively than bad intentions.

Bezerman's research with Francesca Gino and Don Moore, Of Carnegie Mellon University, highlights people's inclination to judge actions on the basis of whether harm follows rather than on their actual ethicality. We followed following stories to two groups of participants.

Both stories begin: "A pharmaceutical researcher defines a clear protocol for determining whether or not to include clinical patients as data points in a study. He is running short of time to collect sufficient data points for his study with in an important budgetary cycle in his firm."

Story A continues: "As the deadline approaches, he notices that for subjects were withdrawn from the analysis due to technicalities. He believes that the data in fact are appropriate to use, and when he adds that data points, the results move from not quite statistically significant to significant. He adds these data points, and soon the drug goes to market. The drug is later withdrawn from the market after it kills six patients and injures hundreds of others."

Story B continues: "He believes that the product is safe and effective. As the deadline approaches, he notices that if he had four more data points for how subjects are likely to behave the analysis would be significant. He makes up these data points, and soon the drug goes to the market. This drug is a profitable and effective drug, and years later show no significant side effects."

After participants read one or the other story, we asked them, "How unethical do you view the researcher to be?" Those who read the story A were much more critical of the researcher than were those who read story B, and felt that he should be punished more harshly. Yes, as we see it, the researcher's behavior was more unethical in story B than in story A. And that is how other study participants saw it when we removed the last sentence - the outcome - from each story.

Managers can make the same kind of judgment mistake, overlooking unethical behaviors when outcomes are good and unconsciously helping to undermine the ethicality of their organizations. They should beware this bias; examine the behaviors that drive good outcomes, and reward quality decisions, not just results.”

©This article contains a section from the article ‘Ethical Breakdowns’ by Max H. Bazerman, Ann E. Tenbrunsel; Harvard Business Review, South Asia - April 2011 issue. This section is republished here after getting the permissions from HBR Team.
#Max H. Bazerman is the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
#Ann E. Tenbrunsel is the Rex and Alice A. Martin Professor of Business Ethics and the Research Director of the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide at the University of Notre Dame. 


  1. Thanks for sharing this article with us.
    I had a good time in reading it.

  2. I liked the way author has scripted things.
    It show true writing capabilities- The art of a writer.

  3. This is an interesting article. I like the way how you see things.