Dispositional Attribution of Corporate Executives: Is Self-Interest a Conscious Decision or a State of Mind?

  • Julian M. ClarkeEmail author
Part of the Ethical Economy book series (SEEP, volume 51)


This paper attempts to begin to bridge a gap which the author believes may have developed between those who research how people ought to behave and those whose expertise is analysing why people behave as they can do in business.

John Milton observed in ‘Paradise Lost’ in 1667: ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’

This paper seeks to consider why some leaders appear more conscientious than others and inculcate admirable ethical standards amongst their colleagues while for others ‘winning at all costs’ dominates proceedings throughout their organisation, by way of considering the ‘dispositional attribution’ of corporate executives: their personal traits and internal characteristics as opposed to the situational or external influences which arise from environment or culture.

A cornerstone assumption of business ethics research would appear to be that all corporate decision makers are actually capable of reasoning morally. This paper seeks to consider whether this may be a valid assumption and what the implications could be for both business leadership and business ethics research if it transpires not to be.

The fact that those lacking in the emotions which most people possess have been shown to so readily and perhaps unwittingly engage in high levels of pathological lying and deceit, cunning manipulation and egocentric, callous and impulsive behaviour, characterised by a lack of responsibility, empathy and remorse, are also well versed in using their charm, confidence and arrogance to hide their true traits even from experienced psychologists poses many implications for the direction of business ethics research.

Wide industry experience with over 300 organisations on all continents suggests to the author that the factors outlined in this paper may, being based on observations of a multitude of real life situations across a wide diversity of industry sectors, contribute towards a better understanding of business ethics as it is actually practiced or malpracticed.

At its most basic, much of the business ethics debate discusses why fundamentally good people do something wrong, usually under some form of pressure. This paper proposes that unethical acts may also be performed by people who may themselves be fundamentally bad, doing what comes most naturally to them, causing harm to others, but who have developed a well-practiced expertise at portraying themselves as being good people. Most of the time. Then someone crosses their path when their true nature and covert characteristics may be exposed. Their thinly veiled lack of concern for others, camouflaged emotional poverty, hidden hatreds, cloaked or even absent conscience and other previously concealed attributes and clandestine traits are no longer obscured by their charming veneer and disguised by their mask of sanity.

Twenty five years in industry after first posing himself the question, the author is of the belief that he has finally found a plausible answer; that it is character traits such as these which may contribute to an explanation for the behaviour resulting in the query “how can someone set out to damage another in business without scruples”? Hence the reason for this paper is to share at an outline level his research findings concerning the dispositional attribution of corporate executives with the wider business ethics community.

Further research is consequently proposed into the personal psychology of both ‘moral exemplars’ most responsible for admirable corporate cultures including the field of ‘Positive Organisational Ethics’ and those ‘difficult people’ whose very persona contributes to adverse cultures and ethical transgressions incorporating the field of ‘clinical psychology’. It advocates further exploration of a potential causal relationship between business ethics failures and leaders displaying what psychologists term ‘consistent irresponsibility’, capable of routinely acting against the common good and doing so with what they describe as ‘emotional impunity’.

Ultimately this paper queries at a macro level the ethical consequences of some business people potentially lacking the psychological capacity to reason morally. For some in society is self-interest a conscious decision or a state of mind?


Business ethics Moral reasoning Dispositional attribution Conscience Moral exemplars Clinical psychology Cluster B personality disorder Virtue ethics Character Trust Reputation 

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.EBENI – European Business Ethics Network IrelandDublinIreland

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