People behave better in front of children. They are less likely to swear and more likely to buy Girl Scout cookies and candles and gift cards for school drives.
Media companies figured out this child power long ago: Look at the raft of commercials that use baby images to advertise everything from bottled water to computer hardware. And what politician doesn't engage in baby kissing to boost his election prospects?
Why do adults change their behavior? Because society has conditioned us to associate children with innocence.
Bizarre as it may sound, companies can harness this power to make their workplaces more ethical. My research collaborator, Francesca Gino, and I have performed experiments that suggest that the presence of children – even the presence of cute childlike things such as animation videos and stuffed toys – brings out good behavior in people.
In one experiment, people who watched an animated nursery rhyme were less prone to cheat on math puzzles than those in the control group. In another experiment, people who participated in a "product evaluation study" of a soft toy were less likely to deceive opponents in a deception game than those who evaluated a stylish paper clip.
Here are three ways corporations can harness child power to make themselves more ethical:
1. On-site day-care centers. Our research offers a novel reason for organizations to provide on-site day-care facilities. Not only will on-site day care lead to a better work/life balance for the employees, it will likely lead to a better ethical climate for the organization as well. Our research suggests that it may also lead companies to engage in more charitable giving.
2. A de-stress zone for employees. You've probably come across stress balls, which come in all sizes and often have a foam exterior that you can squeeze to de-stress. Companies can take the stress ball to the next level by having an area with giant rubber balls and other cushioned objects. A rubber yoga ball may not only help workers take a break from their desks, it may also make them less likely to steal office supplies or pad expense reports.
3. Supporting art at local schools. I recently visited the North Carolina State Employees Credit Union to sort out a banking issue. The parking lot was full, the air conditioner looked as though it could use some repair work, and the line was interminably long. But the people waiting for their turn seemed to be in a good mood. I soon discovered why. One of the walls was covered with bright, colorful pictures done by children at a local school. They included titles such as "Things that make me happy!" and "People I love."
What an excellent way to promote local child art while nudging customers to be patient and friendly while waiting in line!
There are numerous other inexpensive strategies to harness our inner goodness in the workplace. Corporate boardrooms could be adorned with children's artwork; ballpoint pens could be topped with a fuzzy Pooh bear; stationery and notepads could be decorated with rainbow motifs; organizations could follow the lead of companies like Google and have offices that are playfully and colorfully designed; child-friendly music could be streamed into the elevators; or maybe supervisors could simply turn a blind eye to employees surfing websites such as "Daily Cuteness."
Such moves would be relatively low-cost. The payoff could be a better corporate world.
– Sreedhari Desai is a Harvard researcher and organizational behavior professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.