Scandals make good headlines. Whether it’s a high-profile political figure, a big-name CEO, or even someone less well known, when we see the mighty fall we can’t help but watch and wonder. We’re reminded, time and again, that power corrupts. But Jessica Kennedy, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, suggests we rethink that assumption.
Over the last five years, in numerous studies, Kennedy has researched the origin of unethical behavior, and why it takes hold. She has found that the whole story is more complex. It’s not always about power corrupting. Rather, power causes people to identify so strongly with their group that they lose sight of whether that group’s actions cross an ethical line. This identification can lead them to support misconduct, rather than stopping its spread.
Kennedy, a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, spent several years working as an investment banker before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In other studies, she has explored the interplay of gender and ethics, identifying differences in the ways men and women respond when they are pressured to sacrifice values for profits. Kennedy spoke recently with strategy+business about her body of research — all of which is rooted in her search for ways that businesspeople can achieve their goals while acting ethically.