A study warns that professionals who score high on the self-concept may partake in “unethical behaviour and [display an] increased vulnerability to conflicts of interest.”

According to a new study by Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, “employees or managers who view themselves as professional are more vulnerable to unethical behaviour such as conflicts of interest.”

The author, Sunita Sah, wrote that “A high self-concept of professionalism often coexists with a shallow notion of the concept and can paradoxically lead to detrimental outcomes, such as greater unethical behaviour and increased vulnerability to conflicts of interest.”

The study, “The Professionalism Paradox: Professionalism Increases Vulnerability to Conflicts of Interest”, was published last month in the journal Academy of Management Perspectives. It suggests that people with a high self-concept of professionalism may have less of a shield against biases.

“I noticed that many professional advisors, such as financial advisors and physicians, claim that their ‘professionalism’ protects them from corruption and unwanted influence from conflicts of interest; that they can ‘manage their own brains,’” says Sah, associate professor of management and organizations at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

“However, a large body of social science research shows that much bias from conflicts of interests is unintentional and implicit, and claims of professionalism and integrity do little to protect against unwanted influence.”

Sunita Sah surveyed 400 managers on several conflict of interest scenarios, and questioned them on whether they would accept or decline a gift in each scenario. The managers were also asked what influence, if any, they thought an imagined gift would have on them.

Before the participants were presented with the conflict of interest scenarios, they were each asked about their personal ability to remain objective and self-regulate unwanted influence as a measure of their perception of their own professionalism.

“Consistent with my predictions, the greater the managers’ sense of professionalism, the more likely they were to report that they would accept gifts from people with questionable or ambiguous agendas, and less likely to be influenced by the specific gifts in the scenarios,” Sah wrote.

“These overall results indicate that a high sense of professionalism with a shallow understanding of the concept may lead to greater acceptance of conflicts and potentially more bias.”

According to Sah, professionalism has gone from being a feature of traditional professions (such as medicine and law), the news release notes, to a “concept describing how individuals conduct themselves at work.”

“I propose that professionalism be redefined not as an individual characteristic or feeling, but as a set of observable repeated behavioural practises that demonstrates a deep understanding of the concept and promotes outcomes in the interest of clients and the societal good,” Sah says.

“Policies and rules need to be combined with positive role models who model deep professionalism and provide education – nurturing virtues of thought – along with opportunities to practice – nurturing virtues of character.”

Sah also believes that the concept of deep professionalism could be on the syllabus for business school classes.

“Managers could commit to continuing education and practice to remain competent and ethical,” she says.

“Efforts to progress one’s cognitive moral development and empathy would help in understanding one’s limitations and fallibilities,” Sah adds, noting that “Greater humility and the ability to articulate and acknowledge doubts in relation to [conflicts of interest] and other ethical problems is critical to developing and maintaining an ethical self.”

Source: TRTWorld and agencies