News of the UK’s recent experience of the panic-buying of petrol (gas) by motorists will probably be of little interest to anyone outside of the UK but for students of organisational behaviour and EB-HR there is a very important lesson here. It is usually assumed, especially by economists, that most individual human beings of reasonable intelligence will act rationally but, collectively, they often act illogically.
The rational motorist who fears that there will be a shortage of fuel will want to fill up their tank; encouraged to do so by the sight of very long petrol station queues. The same rational being will equally realise that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if everyone follows suit the fuel will run out much sooner and some motorists will have to go without. This subjects all of us to that classic dilemma of personal survival: weighing our selfish interests against the common good.
The same dilemma faces many employees on a regular basis. When a rational employee makes a mistake they know they should let everyone know and try to ensure it does not happen again. The same rational employee will take into consideration the behaviour of everyone else in the organisation. If admitting your mistakes is generally regarded as career-limiting the same, rational employee will reason that it is not in their interests to own up, knowing that if everyone does the same this will inevitably lead to disaster, either for the individual concerned or the organisation as a whole.
Anyone wanting to be an HR director that actually makes a significant difference will have to have a strategic solution to this dilemma. If they don’t there is plenty of evidence to show that the survival instinct is always going to triumph over the greater good. So it might be instructive, if only from a risk management perspective, to consider collecting evidence of how individual rationality is being crushed by collective illogicality. How about trying to measure how many employees -
- fiddle their expenses
- are afraid to voice what they believe are great ideas
- turn a blind eye to bullying, harassment etc.
- accept poor performance
- buy toxic mortgages books to make their bonus
… actually this could turn out to be an extremely long list.