It's a common phrase in the compliance world: "do the right thing." But what is "the right thing?" Are there risks to moralizing organizational decision-making? And what happens when two seemingly "right" actions are—or may be—in conflict? On this episode of the Better Way? podcast, co-hosts Hui Chen and Zach Coseglia, along with the Lab's Dr. Caitlin Handron, explore how culture, context, and individual perspectives impact our understanding of what it means to "do the right thing."


Zach Coseglia: Welcome back to the Better Way? podcast, brought to you by R&G Insights Lab. This is a curiosity podcast, where we ask, "There has to be a better way, right?" There just has to be. I'm Zach Coseglia, the co-founder of R&G Insights Lab, and I am joined, as always, by the one and only Hui Chen. Hi, Hui.

Hui Chen: Hi, Zach. Hi, everybody. It's good, as always, to be here, talking about fascinating things.

Zach Coseglia: Indeed. And we are joined by one of our favorite people, and one of our favorite guests, Dr. Caitlin Handron, also from R&G Insights Lab. Hi, Caitlin.

Caitlin Handron: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.

Zach Coseglia: We are very happy to have you. Hui, what are we talking about today?

Hui Chen: We're talking about one of my all-time pet peeves, which is this compliance world's favorite slogan, "Just do the right thing." I confess to cringing every time I hear that. So, the reason why I always cringe when I hear people say this as the ultimate slogan of how to do compliance, is that it presumes that everybody understands what the right thing is in the same way as the speaker who is using it, and I think that's a very faulty assumption. Compliance thinks that the audience is hearing, "Don't do all the things that we tell you not to do. Don't bribe people. Don't collude with people on pricing"—all of those things. But what the people who are actually delivering the message, and people who are hearing it, they are hearing, "Do the right thing is achieve your goals through whatever means." This all gets perfectly disguised in a simple phrase.

Caitlin Handron: It's one of those phrases where people come to it with very different ideas. I'm, of course, tending to think about things from a cultural perspective, so I think of the literature that demonstrates that people have different values. But even within an organizational setting, taking out national culture as a concept, we can think about the ways in which organizations within a single organization might have competing values. As you said, are we results driven, or are we going to be focusing on inclusion and collaboration? Often, these conversations about what the right thing means, there are just a lot of assumptions, and the conversation itself might not even be had about what we have determined is the right thing and how we're going to go about achieving it.

Zach Coseglia: Caitlin, you are always telling us—and we are in turn quite often telling our clients—that stories offer insight into the richness and the complexity of a particular issue. I'm wondering if we can make this a little bit realer for folks by sharing a story about doing the right thing that brings some life to this concept of it. It isn't always so clear.

Caitlin Handron: A story that comes to mind is one from academia, actually, where there are certainly conversations being had about, "What is the right thing?" and "How do we live our values?" I was an undergraduate, and I was working as a research assistant in a lab. I had gotten the feedback that the way to get into grad school was to get published. In academia, there's a very strong culture of "publish or perish," and so, there are strong norms and expectations that everyone is supposed to be publishing, publishing quickly, and publishing in high-impact journals. I read the journals, and what I was noticing is that there was a pretty clear pattern in how articles were being published. Many of them had a couple of studies that all hung together very nicely, told a very clean story, and all more or less "worked" in terms of demonstrating the hypothesis. But this practice was contributing to what was known as the "file drawer problem," and this is where the studies that don't demonstrate your hypothesis don't ever see the light of day. We don't have broader conversations in academia about the context and the boundary conditions, and when things work and when things don't, because the tendency is to just publish a very clean story about how things work, and studies that are consistent with your hypotheses. Now, what was so great at the time, though, is that I worked with advisors who really were courageous enough to push against these norms and to really challenge the common practices.

Now, since that time, there has been a replication crisis in the field of psychology, where some of these practices—the broader culture of publish or perish—has really begun to show its weaknesses. This tendency to just publish the studies that demonstrate the phenomenon and to kind of hide the ones that don't work has led to a situation where, often, research doesn't replicate. People try to use the same methods in new situations, and it doesn't work, and there's just so much information potentially in those file drawers about the conditions under which these things will happen or won't happen. And so, I think the conversation has shifted a lot in the field from one of doing the right thing in terms of getting published and having high-impact articles to really thinking about the methodology, how we ensure that the process itself is sound, and how we ensure that the approach that we're taking is solid in terms of scientific rigor. I'd say that was a really big transition, and I was right on the cusp and benefited so greatly from having leaders within my lab who had the foresight and the integrity to say that they wanted to do things differently than what the pervasive norms were at the time.

Zach Coseglia: I think what's really interesting about that—and it ties into what Hui said, as well—is that this discussion about doing the right thing, in that example, really comes down to, "What is the desired outcome?" If the desired outcome is publish or perish, or a self-interested desire to publish one's work, doing the right thing may look like X. If the goal is to more meaningfully contribute to the body of science and to advance the profession, what is right may look very different. Hui, I think you have another example from your own experience that further takes this point home.

Hui Chen: In the 1990s, I lived in Vienna, Austria, and I interned with the United Nations. A colleague's husband was Turkish, but he grew up in Austria, and worked for an American company. I remember him saying that American headquarters prohibited them from discussing pricing with competitors (any people who are in the American corporate space understand this—this is a standard anti-trust, compliance, right thing to do, which is to not discuss pricing with your competitors). But this guy's response was, "Everybody in Europe discusses pricing with competitors all the time." The American anti-trust prohibition was just a stupid thing that everybody lied to their Americans at the headquarters about. So, it's not the wrong thing—it's just the stupid thing. To take that point in another recent discussion with a corporate executive—Caitlin and I were both in this conversation—we were talking about a particular market outside of the U.S. that's experienced a lot of compliance issues, and he said, "I keep telling them to do the right thing." I said, "What does the right thing mean to you?" He said, "Things that are not going to land us on the front page of The New York Times." And I said, "What if the thing that you don't want them to do is something that all of them do? If you don't do that thing, you're just stupid." He said, "Oh no, but that's not my standard. My standard is The New York Times standard." What I really wanted to say back to him was, "Your standard is as irrelevant to them as The Timbuktu Daily News's standard would be to you because you're using a standard that is completely outside of their lives. They don't live in your world, where The New York Times matters—they live in their own world where their peers and society matter a lot more to them and are a lot more real to them than The New York Times. So, if you don't get into this world, then you are never going to be able to communicate why this is important to you, or why it should be important to them." I think one of the difficulties is that by characterizing things as right and wrong, sometimes we have really moralized a lot of basically Western ways of thinking of things and doing things. So, that's not only not necessarily efficient in getting people to understand where you're coming from, but in a way, it's kind of condescending to the people that you're talking to because you're, in a way, telling people, "Your way of thinking and your way of life are wrong. Our way is right. Your way is wrong." And that is almost like adding insult to injury, so that's what really concerns me about this particular approach.

Zach Coseglia: Caitlin, I want to come back to you because, obviously, much of your work now focuses on culture in the organizational context, although even within the organizational context, it's not to the exclusion of the role that national cultures may play in an organization. And so, I'd like you to share a little bit more about how national culture and culture in the most traditional sense plays into individuals' understanding, appreciation, or definition of the right thing.

Caitlin Handron: It's such a great topic, and we've spoken on the podcast in the past about just the pervasiveness in the literature of the WEIRD perspective (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). For a long time in the morality research, what was very common was a very individualistic perspective on morality, where what was perceived as good and right was based within what individuals believed was good and right, and very much rooted in the individual and individual perceptions. Increasingly, cultural psychology and cross-cultural research have demonstrated that this is just one way of thinking about morality, ethics and integrity.

Zach Coseglia: Can you drive this home for folks, though, by defining the Golden Rule?

Caitlin Handron: Yes, absolutely. The Golden Rule is the idea that "I'm going to do unto others as I would have them do unto me." This is all, again, rooted in my personal value system—my beliefs about what is good, right and moral—and so, I will treat others the way that I want to be treated. This can be contrasted with the Platinum Rule, which says, "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." That's a big shift, where now instead of treating others how I want to be treated, I actually have to listen, pay attention, learn, and find out, how would this person want to be treated? What makes sense to them? What are the values, behaviors and patterns that are consistent with their world view? And it's a very different approach.

I'd say one of the big other drivers in terms of behavior and how we make sense of the world is whether we want to show up in a way that's very influential, so I want to change and affect the world around me. It's a very individualistic perspective—one where it's okay to act on the world based on what I think is right. And that can be contrasted with context where it's actually much more important to be paying attention to the context, to be paying attention to expectations and obligations, to what other people want. In those contexts, it's really valuable to be adjusting and accommodating, to recognize your place, to recognize your role, and to fall into line more or less sometimes, depending on what the context is asking for. And so, it's not only a different way of making sense of a problem, but it leads to different conclusions about how to act and what the right kind of behavior is in a given situation.

Zach Coseglia: There's been a lot of talk over the course of the past number of years, and I think some meaningful movement within organizations away from treating compliance as rules, and making it more about principles. Is that approach at odds with what we're talking about here? Is a principles-based approach to compliance at odds with the notion that there's something wrong with doing the right thing?

Hui Chen: I think there is definitely some tension there because when you're talking about principles, you are talking about basically your core ethical values, and how that is perceived, understood and defined can really vary from one culture to another. Culture is not just at the organizational level or at the national level—it exists in many levels in a very complex way—so in organizations, there are the geographical cultures of where the company is situated. But there are also different cultures within the different functions of the organization, and there are also sub-cultures of every place, depending on its population, gender, race and social classes. So, all of those things come into play.

Let me give another story about how the values-based approach may create some tension with what we're saying here. I was recently talking to an auditor who works in Hawaii—he used to work on the mainland but recently started doing audit work in Hawaii. He said, "For some reason, being in Hawaii doing audit work just has been so much more stressful than I had ever experienced before." So, he took a class on the Hawaii-Polynesian culture and what he learned was—between the principles: truth and harmony—harmony is highly valued in the Hawaiian-Polynesian culture, way over truth. If these two things are in tension, we will always choose the principle of harmony before the principle of truth. And so, he realized that, "For me, my job is about truth all the time. This is what I do—I dig out truths, I make them known, and it causes a lot of resistance in a culture that feels threatened by that." I think that principle-based approach, again, you have to recognize there are other cultural contexts where the principles are prioritized differently, or even defined differently than you might imagine. Caitlin?

Caitlin Handron: I think one of the functions that a framework of right versus wrong does is try to simplify things for us where we have clear labels for what is good and what is bad, or what is right and what is wrong. I think what we're talking about here is letting go of that simplicity and embracing some of the complexity that comes with recognizing that people differ in how they do things, what they do and how they make sense of those actions. And so, when I think about values and principles, what I feel comes about is really that conversation about: How do we want to do things? What do we want to ensure is a part of the process? What do we want to attend to and take care of? I think that is very valuable and different from a rules-based approach, which I think might contribute more to that framework of "This is right and this is wrong," or "This is what you can do and this is what you can't do." I think the values and principles-based approach actually embraces more of that complexity as long as we don't begin with that foundation of the assumption that everyone agrees about how things should be done. I think the first step is to really make sure that there is alignment between people's different belief systems and what the organization itself is aiming for.

Zach Coseglia: What this reminds me of is a discussion that we've had a few times on the podcast around precision, and I think that that's one of the challenges with "do the right thing"—it is the very definition of imprecise. But that doesn't mean that a value or a principle has to be imprecise, and I think that that's probably one of the things that's wrong with doing the right thing is that it is terribly imprecise.

Caitlin Handron: Yes, I love that. Tangentially, one of the ideas that comes to mind for me is just some of the ideas that I've learned from feng shui, that there is no good or bad, or right and wrong. It's just about placement, and it's just about finding the right place so that systems and processes are in sync and can line up well and aren't destructive. I love that orientation—just the idea that everything has a place, and you just need to look for it and try to make sense of how everything can fit together.

Hui Chen: I think we all agree that the principles-based approach definitely does a much better job at embracing complexity than a rule-based regime, but for the principle-based approach to truly embrace the complexities, it's got to start with you recognizing your principles are not the only principles. That's got to be the first step in order for that system to work in embracing complexity.

Zach Coseglia: We work in an organization where not everyone lives, works and was born in the same country—and that's true for any large, global organization. Can an organization say, "This is what is right within these walls"? Or is it just always going to be a losing battle because those walls will never be able to compete with the broader cultural context in which that organization operates?

Hui Chen: This is a story from one of the earlier Malcolm Gladwell books, and it resonated a lot with me. The story was about Korean Airlines. In the '80s, Korean Airlines had a terrible track record in terms of safety—and this is all referenced in his book. They were at the point of being prohibited from flying into certain jurisdictions because of their safety record. There is a cultural element that Malcolm Gladwell pointed out—the Korean aviation culture is so hierarchical to the point where the captain can feel free to physically smack his first officer on the head in front of the crew, and that's accepted behavior. You then come into the situation where you're listening to the taping from the black box, from an accident, and people are not speaking up. They can see the fuel tank is empty, but not one person dare says, "Captain, we're really low on fuel, and we've got to land this bird right now." Other situations where other people in the cockpit could see problems, they're about to fly into a mountain, they have a mechanical problem—nobody's speaking up. So, one of the things that the aviation industry developed at that time was called CRM (Cockpit Resource Management). The CRM system was really aimed to address some of these issues. And they took this not as a moral exercise—they took it as a communications exercise. The core of CRM was a lot about teaching those in charge, the captain, to turn around and specifically ask, making this a routine, "First Officer, do you see anything? Flight Engineer, do you see anything?" By enhancing this communications system, they can then overcome some of the cultural inhibitions that might be inhibiting the communications, particularly in a crisis situation. So, you have a greater culture that is very hierarchical, but when they step into the cockpit, CRM's practice allows them to change that culture while they're sitting in those seats, flying the plane, so that they can make use of all the human resources and all the things that they're seeing in their decision making.

This resonates with me in so many ways because it's a story about how you can transform the larger culture in a specific context. It's also because my father was a pilot, and he was responsible for bringing CRM to his airline. I grew up hearing my dad talking about "CRM, CRM, CRM," and here I am, reading a story about how CRM has improved safety, and Korean Airline has one of the best safety records today since the implementation of CRM. So, I've always been saying, "What is the CRM for corporate?" And my answer to that is exactly what CRM is, which is communications. It's eliciting people's answers even when they might not be trained to give it to you. It's making an effort to understand what the cultures, norms, expectations and behaviors are in your organization. And so, in these parts, I think we call that a "culture assessment."

Zach Coseglia: Caitlin, what do you think of that?

Caitlin Handron: I think that there is so much that can be done to shape culture, of course. I do this work every day, thinking about how to take concrete actions to shape the broader environment. From the story I told earlier, I worked in a lab that really sought to push against the norms of the broader culture. And so, within our lab, what we really valued was scientific rigor, and that showed up in how we communicated with one another, the processes we had in place to evaluate our work and ensure that everything was accurate, and the way in which we took pride in our work—that really factored in. Eventually, the broader culture caught up, and that became part of the conversation that was happening in other labs, as well. But I think it's absolutely possible to do things differently. Even when we think about values and how some of these processes play out within an organizational setting, some organizations really value innovation and coming up with new ideas, and that part of the process is really going to be given a lot of room and energy, and thinking differently will be prioritized. Others might focus on the process and ensuring that rules and regulations are followed, and that everything is controlled down to a T. It's just about coming to understand that question of, "How do we want to do things around here?" and ensuring that everything lines up with that broader mission so that, as Hui said, you're using communication, you're using rituals and you're using practices to ensure that there is that alignment.

Zach Coseglia: I'd like to play a little game. As we were prepping for this discussion today, I just spent a couple minutes and I typed out two groups of values/principles/behaviors: one that I thought most people would look at and say, "Yes, that's the right thing—we can all agree to that," and another that I felt like a lot of people would look at and be like, "I'm not so sure." So, I thought I'd throw some of them out there and see how you react to them. The first one is, "We don't steal. No theft." Could we all agree to that?

Hui Chen: Yes, I can.

Caitlin Handron: I think...

Zach Coseglia: She's not going to agree to it!

Caitlin Handron: I come from circles where innovation and art are foundational to a lot of the ways that we think about and make sense of the world around us. In both innovation and art, using other people's ideas is sometimes part of the process. Even in academia we cite each other's literature. I guess maybe we can get into the definition of "stealing"—maybe that's the place to start now that I walked myself into this little hole.

Hui Chen: I love it. We come back to that point of precision, right? So, it's how you define stealing because I could see what you're saying, Caitlin, but when I was thinking of stealing, I wasn't thinking of those.

Zach Coseglia: Let's do another one. The other one we hit on a little bit, quite a bit actually, in the context of your Malcolm Gladwell story—it's speaking up. Can we universally get behind that as the right thing to do?

Caitlin Handron: I think there are different motivations for speaking up. The question is, "Why are we speaking up? And for what purpose?" Sometimes, people feel compelled to speak up just because they have something to say, like what I'm doing right now—I'm pushing against the idea for the sake of pushing against the idea. In contexts where harmony is really valued, me blurting out the first thing that comes to mind is not necessarily a productive or useful way to continue or advance a conversation. And so, yes, I think in the U.S., we tend towards really valuing the possibility that someone might have something genius to contribute at any moment. But I think in other contexts, there is more of that emphasis on listening and paying attention. Sometimes, holding onto your thoughts until you have some more context and some more information can be really valuable, so that if you choose to speak up, or if you choose to contribute in a way that is different from speaking up, it could just play out a little differently than just blurting out what comes to mind in the moment.

Zach Coseglia: I am having so much fun—I love this. I want to build off of that one by throwing a similar concept that's in the other bucket that I think that people will be like, "We universally can agree that's not a good thing," and that one is tattling on a friend.

Caitlin Handron: I think at this point, you know I have an opinion, but I'll leave it to Hui to start us off.

Hui Chen: I think my answer would have to be: it depends.

Zach Coseglia: Yes, because that's the tension that often exists within an organizational context, right? On one hand, the organization is often saying, "We value speaking up. We expect you to speak up. It's actually your responsibility to speak up." But on the other hand, then you have the human on the other end of that message who's thinking, "What you're actually asking me to do is to tattle on my friend here of 10 years who, yes, I saw do something that they shouldn't have done, but to speak up is requiring me to put myself at risk, is requiring me to potentially betray a friendship, and could have all kinds of other downstream consequences." That's the kind of duality of this, and why it is—to use our favorite word—complex. All right, here's another positive one: excelling at your job.

Hui Chen: Seeing that you're our boss, we kind of have to say "yes" to this one. We can't say, "I don't really need to excel—I could just do an okay job." But, yes, I think in principle, on gut instinct, this would be the one that I'd say yes. I would sign onto this, but I also would give other issues consideration. So, what does that all mean? Does excelling at my job mean making myself shine as an individual at the cost of my teammates? Is it at the cost of sacrificing important, valuable time in my personal life? All those will come into consideration, but the idea that I should strive to excel at my job, I can sign onto.

Zach Coseglia: It's interesting, though, because to go back to where you started in this conversation in talking about what employees often hear in the context of compliance talks and in the context of folks saying, "Do the right thing," excelling at your job, maybe we agree that that is something that we can all get behind—but if excelling at my job means hitting my sales target, and on the other hand, that is in some ways at tension with the compliance expectations or the external demands that are coming to me, it's not so clear. We often ask in the context of our culture reviews and in the context of our compliance program reviews, "How would your organization respond to your CEO saying, or could you ever imagine your CEO saying, 'If the sale means that we violate our values, our code or our policies, that's business we don't want'?" So, if you're the actual person who's got to make that choice between excelling at my job by fulfilling compliance expectations, or excelling at my job by making the sale, that's a tough spot.

Caitlin Handron: I love this game. I feel like what it is getting at and unearthing for me are all of those follow-up questions, the clarifying questions that need to be asked when you're in a situation where it potentially depends, and I feel like this really came out in what you both were saying. Some of the clarifying questions in this situation are, "Excel by whose standards, by what means, and at what cost?" I do feel that, so often, we just assume in our communication that we all are on the same page, and that is very rarely the case.

Zach Coseglia: I'm going to throw one more out there from the negative pile. I'm going to pick this one because of how Hui responded to my question about excelling at your job by saying that, of course, she's going to say because I'm the boss—and that one is refusing to do what your boss requests.

Hui Chen: It depends.

Zach Coseglia: Of course, it does.

Caitlin Handron: I immediately had a flood of all of these media representations of being the moral rebel, the person who stands up for what they think is right when they're told to do something that they don't agree with. And so, it's a pervasive narrative that exists, especially, I think, in the West in individualistic context where we have the rebellion against authority as something that's very acceptable and deemed as good. I think what is interesting here, and some of the clarifying questions that come up for me, are just, "What is the level of trust? And how will that ultimately influence the decision making?" There's, of course, the broader context of why you disagree, but, I think, what it really gets at when you're in a position where there is a hierarchy—the Western narrative of rebelling against authority is just one narrative—there are so many contexts where what is absolutely right is to follow the lead of someone who's in a position of power above you and to not question it.

Zach Coseglia: What's so interesting about that one for me, especially having worked in other parts of the world—having worked in China, for example, which is a deeply hierarchical society where there is a lot of reverence and loyalty paid to bosses or folks in more senior positions, or elders—in those scenarios where the organization is saying, "Do what's right," what's right a lot of the time is probably what my boss told me to do. I'm not going to refuse to do what my boss tells me to do. It's an interesting dynamic—it's probably one that many of us have seen, and that seems obvious, but it's a layered, nuanced and complex set of considerations.

Hui Chen: What we're saying here is not that you need to buy into all the different principles, world views and different culture perspectives—you don't have to agree with them—but you do have to recognize that they exist and that they're different, and they're very real to the people that you're trying to influence. That's your beginning step to understand how you can influence people's behavior—not simply by imposing your model on them, but recognizing that they operate in a different framework, different reality almost. So, it's not to say that if you're accustomed to the more individualistic culture that you have to now agree that it's a good thing to follow what your boss and your elders say—you don't have to—it's recognizing that some of the people you work with do buy into that. That's very real to them, that's very important to them and they might disagree with your view as much as you disagree with theirs. It's that recognition that we're trying to highlight here.

Zach Coseglia: I love that. And to your point, Hui, both just now and earlier, what we need to do is to be aware of our cultural context. We need to be aware of these things. In order to get aware, we've got to collect data, we've got to assess our culture and we've got to understand the context in which the things we're saying are actually being received. This has been so much fun. Caitlin, we can play this game some more later, but I want to give you the last word before we go.

Caitlin Handron: Absolutely. In one word, I'm going to go with "complexity." I feel that what we are all circling around is just this question of, "How do we work together/get along? How do we make decisions when they potentially affect ourselves and others?" I just absolutely agree with the message that we need a whole lot more curiosity, and to try to resist that temptation to grab for very simplistic frameworks, ones such as right or wrong, or good or bad, and instead be open and willing to engage with some of the nuances that will inevitably emerge.

Zach Coseglia: Terrific. Thank you, Caitlin, for joining us. And thank you all for tuning in to the Better Way? podcast and exploring all of these Better Ways with us. For more information about this or anything else that's happening with R&G Insights Lab, please visit our website at You can also subscribe to this series wherever you regularly listen to podcasts, including on Apple and Spotify. And, if you have thoughts about what we talked about today, the work the Lab does, or just have ideas for Better Ways we should explore, please don't hesitate to reach out—we'd love to hear from you. Thanks again for listening.

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