The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

Rationalising corruption: Did the devil make you do it?

Rationalising corruption
  • Prof Mias de Klerk
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Features, Leadership
22 minutes to read


Article written by Prof Mias de Klerk
Head: Research, USB

Former captain of the South African national cricket team, Hansie Cronjé, was not the first and will most probably not be the last to offer ‘The devil made me do it’ as defence when admitting guilt or justifying involvement in corruption.

Blaming the devil is a popular justification to diffuse responsibility and explain away lowering standards by misusing power or resources for personal or organisational gain. In many instances the offence is committed by those whom we regard as people with integrity – people that we respect and see as the least likely to engage with ill-doing.

The psychological pathway to fraud leaves otherwise law-abiding people to rationalise their corrupt actions to such an extent that it allows them to continue with these practices without being stopped by the pains of conscience.

To deal effectively with corruption, potentially avoiding it ourselves or reducing such instances in our organisations, we need to understand and become conscious of the unconscious motives and needs that rationalisation satisfies.

It is thus a … an illusion that corruption is only committed by people who lack integrity, self-control, have low levels of morality or character flaws – this is a latent potential in all of us.

The art of corruption
Corruption is inherently a behavioural issue with all forms of corruption involving people who commit fraud, bribery, embezzlement, nepotism, cronyism and cheating, and engage in conflict of interest to gain an inappropriate advantage.

However, corruption is not possible without having the opportunity to commit corruption and to somehow conceal it from a place of power, authority or trust. Although one can limit the opportunity for corruption through formal controls, there is an illusion of control, misleading managers into believing everything can be controlled. But the act of corruption is far more complex than just controls. Controls are never perfect, and corrupt managers can take advantage of organisational deficiencies with their expert knowledge and power to influence.

Many perpetrators experience pressure to commit corruption, whether these are financial, non-financial, rational or subjective irrational pressures that made them consider and take part in corruption. If both opportunity and pressure for corruption exist, it becomes deceptively easy to justify corruption through rationalisation. Rationalisation is an attempt to acquit or indemnify oneself from the transgression. As such, it becomes a facilitator of corruption in that it neutralises feelings of ethical anxiety, justifies corrupt activities before the crime to forestall guilt and retrospectively to ease misgivings about the behaviour.

The unconscious as the proverbial iceberg
Much of our human experience is split off from consciousness and relegated to the unconscious. Although they both influence our behaviour, much of the mental activity that powers (im-)moral behaviour lies below the surface in the unconscious mind, hidden from conscious awareness.

Freud’s views offer perspectives to understand the unconscious and its potential influence on rationalised corruption. According to Freud the human psyche consists of the id, ego and superego. The id refers to the unconscious part of the mind, which is irrational, instinctual and amoral. The ego refers to the cognitive part of the psyche and conscious awareness, while the superego refers to an idealised fantasy of what one can be or ought to be and a desire to see one self as moral. The ego mediates between the desires of the id and the aspirations of the superego, striving to be moral but the drives of the id easily convert our best intentions into unethical acts.

Psychoanalytical theory views people as complex individuals with unique emotional and fantasy lives and developing identities rooted in diverse past experience. However, even rational acts could often be fuelled by an emotional or irrational agenda. Irrational behaviour that is in conflict with conscious intentions and moral ideations is quite normal and not necessarily pathological. Psychoanalytic theory provides plausible explanations of irrational corruptions.

As human beings we are not as ethical as we imagine; we tend to overestimate our morality. Freud describes the relentless internal conflict between good and bad as the ‘tragic fate of humanity’ and it is this very fallibility that makes us human. Jung argues that integrity does not mean being always good, but that it requires the ability to doubt ourselves with the courage to confront our hypocrisy.

As morally conflicted beings we are naturally capable of doing both good and evil, and are prone to succumb to temptation. It is thus a form of denial and an illusion that corruption is only committed by people who lack integrity, self-control, have low levels of morality or character flaws – this is a latent potential in all of us. And it is within this very reality that otherwise law-abiding individuals can become corrupt and employ rationalisation in the belief that it can indemnify them or redeem their corrupt acts.

They use projection to get rid of moral accountability and anxiety, thereby neutralising any emotions of guilt and shame.

The six devils within
We need to become conscious of our unconscious processes and skilled in the ease with which we unconsciously motivate corrupt actions in order to be more in control of our ethical behaviour. Without an understanding of the unconscious motives, appreciation of the gap between good intentions and rationalised corruption remains too wide. Too often individuals are engaged in questionable behaviours that are inconsistent with their own values and ethical believes. Unpacking the following six motives of how offenders believe that rationalisation acquits or indemnifies them, or redeems their corrupt behaviour, provides a better understanding of why and how apparently good and ethical people can become corrupt.

Acquittal of personal accountability – denying personal responsibility for the ethical transgression or transferring it elsewhere. Transgressors use this motive to, for example, blame a transgression on circumstances beyond their control, rationalising to be situational victims without control over their own actions, shifting responsibility to another person, such as management, or diffusing responsibility with excuses such as ‘everybody does it’. In this process, offenders reframe their behaviour as arising from causes where they are only innocent bystanders. They use projection to get rid of moral accountability and anxiety, thereby neutralising any emotions of guilt and shame.

In many instances, individuals cannot be corrupt on their own since, say, bribery requires a corrupt briber and bribee. Through repressive justification, transgressors negate their roles in corrupt acts to being merely innocent bystanders, rather than active participants. For example, evasive governmental corruption creates the phantasy that the bribee can indemnified by arguing: ‘I had no choice. If one does not pay a bribe one cannot get this done.’ However, both parties are equally involved and gain some advantage with victims only found outside of the corrupt behaviour.

Projection of blame or blameworthiness can also be towards abstract constructs such as the devil to deny one’s own evil, in order to emotionally disengage and distance oneself from personal accountability, ridding oneself from the badness within, allowing the offender to claim innocence at the mercy of this devil.

It is hardly surprising that projecting blame for corrupt acts onto a senior manager is a common phenomenon. Corrupt behaviour is routinely sanctioned, condoned or implicitly ordered by an authority figure, making the participation by the subordinate seem legitimate and even desirable. Leadership that ignores, condones or reinforces corruption is a prime contributor to corrupt acts. Individuals seldom identify with management’s talk, but rather view values through the personal example and persuasive acts of top management.

Freud noted the destructive consequences when a subordinate puts a leader in the place of the superego. Although the superego is capable of using authority to prevent unethical behaviour, it is prone to be overpowered by the leader. A leader’s example and expectations leads to significant pressure from the hierarchical relationship, creating a breeding ground for corrupt behaviour. Subsequently, corrupt leaders can hold subordinates captive to their corrupt desires, being unaware of the extent to which their decisions influence others, and unconsciously coerce and pressure subordinates into corruption.

Senior leaders often authorise corruption implicitly. Subordinates are expected to execute all instructions rather than second-guess them, leaving employees weak when confronted with obstinate authority. Lower level employees are expected to carry out managers’ plans on their behalf, affording executives the luxury to abuse power and enact corruption, yet still claim ignorance and avoid unpleasant emotions by denying their own role, projecting guilt and blame onto the subordinates as if they had no influence on the deed.

Leadership sets the norms of behaviour, and ethics is driven by both direct and indirect signals from leaders about what is really important. Honest employees can be seduced into corruption through subtle suggestions of ‘do whatever it takes’ to achieve a certain goal. Both the manager, who knows what the suggestion could lead to, and the subordinate who acts as if he or she has no choice, play active roles in the unspoken conspiracy. By denying their own role in the corruption, managers project blame onto subordinates as if they had nothing to do with the corrupt act, claiming they never gave inappropriate instructions. On the other hand, due to their psychological dependency on their leaders, many subordinates will shift the blame onto their managers, while denial provides them with the excuse of being a victim.

Consequentialist redemption – where offenders attempt to minimise the consequences of their deeds through denial of injury (claiming no one was hurt or damaged, so no real harm was caused), and denial of a victim suffering because of it, or comparing their actions to more extreme forms with worse outcomes.

This implies that questionable and corrupt acts can be rationalised to be acceptable as long as the consequences perceivably do not hurt anyone. This in turn facilitates emotional disengagement and neutralises guilt and anxiety. It is easier to deny injury when the injury is not visible and when the victim remains faceless. When the victim is projected to be a powerful entity who can afford the cost of the crime, corruption is framed to be victimless (i.e. the victim can afford it), enabling perpetrators to disengage emotionally and becoming morally blind. Examples include trading counterfeit goods, tax evasion, fraud and insider trading. The delusion of this motive lies in the fact that corruption is never without victims – those harmed are just not aware that they have been victimised.

Individuals seldom identify with management’s talk, but rather view values through the personal example and persuasive acts of top management.

Deontological redemption – where wrongdoers justify their behaviour or acts rather than the consequences by arguing that a corrupt deed is technically not illegal according to the law and therefore acceptable, regardless of moral implications, or they claim ignorance or ‘grey’ zones in legislation, and even justify their behaviour as an unavoidable part of business practices.

Some corrupt acts are not necessarily illegal, yet border on the fringes of morality, for example tax evasion by setting up a front office in a tax-friendly country. In many countries, payment of facilitation fees (to speed up administrative processes) is strictly not illegal. However, this lures corrupt officials to demand facilitation payments and other parties into making such payments, producing an act of corruption.

Narcissistic indemnity – where offenders claim entitlement to certain rights and believe that they deserve more, that they have accrued credits that can be offset against the acts and have a perceived specialness. These beliefs overpower their moral capacity. Leaders need a healthy dose of narcissism to be successful, in other words, traits such as drive, charisma and self-assurance. However, narcissistic traits such as entitlement, grandiosity, arrogance, hubris and self-absorption are dysfunctional, likely to present a moral liability which can seriously impede morality.

But it is not so much the narcissistic personality that is linked to rationalised corruption. Rather, it is the accompanying unconscious dynamics. Rationalised corruption is a crime of entitlement, committed by those who cannot fathom that they are part of a wider community, with the fantasy that they are elevated to levels above the rest of society and more deserving than others. Fantasies of specialness can push talented individuals to greatness. However, the frustration of such dreams can lead to acute psychological pressure, leading for some to an increased urgency to accomplish these goals, fuelling opportunistic corruption under narcissistic illusions of indemnity. Lack of restraint makes narcissists regard themselves to be above the laws that apply to others and to be beyond questioning.

These narcissistic tendencies spill over to the rest of the organisation and followers unconsciously, but purposefully so, collude with narcissistic leaders because of their own unmet dependency needs. This manifests as unconditional following and obedience. To many subordinates, a senior leader becomes a god-like figure or imaginary parental figure who has to be pleased to win favour and gain recognition from, leaving them too paranoid to challenge the leader’s corrupt behaviour. This dynamic entices powerful narcissists to abuse their symbolic status and to delude followers to buy into corrupt behaviour.

Sacrosanct indemnity – providing justification that usually accepted norms can be or have to be sacrificed to realise higher order values, for instance: ‘I’m protecting the company’, or ‘It’s for a good cause’, indemnifying the cause and anything related to moral scrutiny.

Even a recommendable but overinflated organisational ideal can result in delusions that could bolster corruption. Inflated organisational narcissism offers managers a sense of purpose beyond reality and perceived protection through sacrosanct indemnity, justifying that an exemplary cause or idea is beyond questioning and sacrosanct. Once the individual believes that he or she is protected by sacrosanct indemnity, there is a lack of association with the corrupt consequences, and moral disengagement ensues. Excessive beliefs of moral righteousness develop and ideals are pursued through extreme alternatives under a fallacy of being morally sanctioned. The hideous aspects of the self is projected onto others and fantasies of specialness and entitlement are boosted.

Corruption scandals often occur in the pursuit of a sacrosanct cause, involving leaders instructing corrupt acts under the auspices of ensuring company survival. Subordinates tend to follow an authoritative figure’s directions unquestionably, even if unethical. The combination of sacrosanct indemnity (leader claiming survival of the company) and denial accountability by subordinates (‘I was instructed and did not have a choice’), perceived pressure and projecting blame onto each other feeds an unspoken conspiracy to be corrupt without moral confrontation.

During group formation, the synthesis of individuals produce an entity with its own moral identity. The stronger the ideals that bind a group, the more powerful the (un-)ethical sentiments that may rise out of them. The stronger the organisational ideal the more intense the members experience pressure to live up to such idealisations. Idolised ideals accentuate beliefs of specialness and advance group narcissism, with the pressure and efforts to protect identity from becoming fixated on relieving anxiety to contrary reality. Although a healthy degree of shared narcissism provides a sense of belonging among members, when exaggerated, it makes group members preoccupied with an illusion of superiority, entitlement, denial and rationalisation. This entitlement provides group members with beliefs that the group has a right to possess or do whatever they desire and want, entrapping members to become morally blind to their corrupt actions aimed at upholding the organisational ideal.

Extreme forms of organisational narcissism can harm organisations when rational decision making is replaced. This especially likely when groups unconsciously split themselves off between in-groups and out-groups, whereby the former regard themselves and whatever they do as good and superior, protecting corruption as superior attributes with strong rivalry against the out-group enemy. Under such a spell, the toxic combination of dehumanisation, depersonalisation, projection and denial is deployed effectively to justify sometimes lethal corruption. Examples include Hitler portraying the Jewish community as the enemy and as subhuman, rallying most of Germany to morally disengage from the atrocities of genocide in support of his corrupt practices. Closer to home, referring to black people as ‘the black threat’ has emotionally disengaged white South Africans from the injustices and promotion of the apartheid government for many years.

Honest employees can be seduced into corruption through subtle suggestions of ‘do whatever it takes’ to achieve a certain goal.

Intentional indemnity – where offenders typically argue that they did not mean any harm or mischief and that they plan to pay back or fix the fraud at some time in the future, creating self-deceiving delusions of indemnity.

We tend to judge others on their actual behaviour since we cannot see their intentions, whereas we judge our own acts on the intentions behind the acts. Even when these intentions are not always good and worthy, we tend to judge our intentions positively through self-deception (unconsciously lying to ourselves to alleviate guilt or anxiety). Self-deception prevents access to confronting moral emotions, distorting reality when the act is too appalling to acknowledge.

Self-serving deception selectively accesses certain information and denies other information to maintain an enlarged self-image, lying to oneself in various ways to protect the fantasies of the ego-ideal. Through repression, offenders actively move and keep unwanted emotions out of conscious awareness, arguing that the corrupt act was a loan that they will pay back as soon as the necessary funds become available. Another way is to euphemistically label the corrupt act to make it sound better (e.g. referring to fraud as borrowing), convincing oneself that the corrupt behaviour does not violate moral standards in the slightest.

Becoming watchful of the devils within
Even though the development and advancement of morality in managers is in abundance, corruption is still rife. Corruption is a fact of life and it has caused several large and powerful organisations to collapse, while others suffer significant profit losses. Corruption is imposing a huge burden on society by adding around 20% to 100% to the cost of goods.

Many involved in corruption convince themselves and others that they are not corrupt and that their acts are justified and even acceptable. And it is this urge to unconsciously rationalise actions – based on a need to find a psychological pardon and justification, achieved through self-convincing beliefs of acquittal – that can lead otherwise law-abiding citizens with moral intentions to corruption.

As individuals and managers we can only work with those dynamics and devils that we have become consciously aware of. Although this is not a panacea that will eliminate rationalised corruption, at least it puts managers in a somewhat better position to be in control of these dynamics and devils.

Another way is to euphemistically label the corrupt act to make it sound better (e.g. referring to fraud as borrowing), convincing oneself that the corrupt behaviour does not violate moral standards …

  • Original article: De Klerk, JJ. 2017. ‘The Devil Made Me Do It!’ An Inquiry Into the Unconscious ‘Devils Within’ of Rationalized Corruption. Journal of Management Inquiry, 26(3), 254-269.
  • Link to original article:

Prof Mias de Klerk is a professor in Human Capital Management and Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, where he also holds the position as Head of Research. His research interests include system psychodynamics and unconscious processes, behavioural aspects of business ethics, emotions in organisations, change, transformation and change emotions, existentialism, meaning and spirituality in organisations.

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