About corruption

Since corruption seems to be the hip topic, I thought it would be good to clarify a few things. I have been reading about the Petrobras scandal (Folha, a Brazilian newspaper, has a nice info-graphic about it, in Portuguese, sorry…) and asking a few people I know who work in companies to find out exactly how these schemes come about. We must inform ourselves, right? I also read a few papers about corruption from management and psychology academics [1]. Here’s my two cents on the subject.

When corruptions scandals erupt, “outside” people’s immediate reaction is to point the guilty ones, and punish them for that. The underlying idea is that there exists half a dozen of “bad apples”, who are greedy and evil and who cheat the system for their own benefit. Getting rid of these people would guarantee the end of corruption. Practical, right? But wrong. We are all grown ups, and we know very well that there is no such thing as the good guy and the bad guy.

Corrupt actions are not committed by immoral or unethical people, but by people like me and you (assuming you have a sense of moral and ethics…). People who will ground their kids for taking materials from school, that will be outraged by politicians’ money laundering and who will always pay their bills. So how come otherwise moral people end up so corrupt? For me this is the ultimate question. If we understand how people are led to commit illegal acts, we have a chance of solving the problem before it starts, preventing instead of treating. Fortunately, we know already a thing or two about that.

The first thing we should keep in mind is that it is all about context. At the point of the decision making, people have limited information and are usually under pressure to solve an immediate problem. Decisions are made without a lot of reflection, with no time to analyse the situation as a whole, which makes the matter that much harder. At that moment when we need to decide whether to bribe or not, to count with that sales or not, to sell a bad product to a client or not, we think small. If we don’t bend the rules just a little bit, maybe we’ll be without a job, maybe many people will be without jobs, maybe the company will not reach its goal… at that moment, given the consequences, bending the rules is a necessary evil. Even if, deep deep down, you know this is something illegal. We have a thing called psychological self-preservation that does wonders for that and protects our egos. It is responsible for our rationalization, at the time of the decision making and afterwards, that we made the right choice given the conditions.

We can try an exercise to see how this works. Let’s use the Petrobras scheme since it is in vogue. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of each player and think how they could have rationalized their actions [2]:

– Jose, Petrobras director. Jose was nominated by party X to be the new director of Petrobras. He was very happy and proud of himself and all his hard work that led him to be trusted with such an important position. He celebrated in a barbecue with his family and friends from party X. His friends warned him that he should follow some “suggestions” every now and then, but Jose trusts his friends and he knows they will suggest good companies for the job. On top of that, it’s a way for Jose to pay back to the party who nominated him, helping them get money for campaigns. If it weren’t like this, the companies would never give so much for electoral campaigns because they are greedy and evil. And political parties need the money. Jose is only helping.

– Carlos, friend of Jose and member of party X. Carlos supported the nomination of Jose for Petrobras’ board of directors because the former trusts the latter. Carlos is worried about getting funding for campaigns so that his party has more representatives in the government and can approve more laws which he deems are good for the people. Since companies do not donate a lot for electoral campaigns, he can use the influence of Jose when hiring them for Petrobras’ jobs to give it a little push. All for the good of society. The companies can surely afford it.

– Eduardo, owner of company Y. Eduardo opened his own company as a young entrepreneur and is very proud of how it has been growing. He decides to enter the competition to win a contract with Petrobras. During a meeting, there is a subtle mention of a bribe to get the contract and Eduardo is outraged at first. After losing all the contracts in a few years, he realises that the only way of getting in is accepting the bribe. A Petrobras contract is really something to have on your company’s portfolio. Eduardo does the math and see it will be worth it. Eduardo is in.

Looking so closely, it does not seem they are doing anything wrong. Looking from far, as we see today on the news, it is outrageous, unethical, immoral, and all the proper adjectives. What we learn from this is that wrong-doings might not look so wrong from up-close. If any of these people had an idea of the size of the scheme, as we are seeing it today, maybe they would make a different choice. But they didn’t. And neither would have me or you, if we were in their shoes.

Of course that my fictional characters are just the protagonists of the whole story. A scheme such as that does not maintain itself with only a handful of people in an organization. Many others must support, or at least consent with, the whole thing. This leads to the second thing we know about human behaviour: group loyalty and obedience. If you are a person inside an institution and you realise there is something wrong going on, you have basically two choices: speak up and risk your job or stay quiet and hope someone else will say something. Since most people choose the second option, the collective silence makes you think that  maybe it was not so wrong to begin with. Everything becomes ok and you just think “well, that’s how things are done around here then, very well”. And if all you have to do is sign a paper, put some numbers on a spreadsheet or transfer some money, your sense of responsibility in a great corruption scheme is minimal. After all, you are only following orders. Actually, my guess is that most people in those schemes, if not all, are not conscious of the fact that they are corrupt or doing something wrong (which should not keep them from being punished, or course).

Well… how to prevent this? The problem is much harder now, right? Yeah…
I am sure there are people working on things which could be applied to this situation. We need to pay attention, inform ourselves, and bring the worlds of theory and practice together for a solution.

[1] By the way, not many things available online… I don’t know if it is because of copyright issues or if there are not many studies about corruption.

[2] The described situation is highly hypothetical and serves the purpose of being an exaggerated example for making a point.