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Patty Kleban: Penn State Scandal Teaches us All About Doing the Right Thing

by on July 02, 2012 6:20 AM

It probably starts with butterflies in your stomach.

You are in a group. A problem or issue comes up. A discussion follows. At some point, someone in the group makes a suggestion that goes against policy. Maybe it’s the person in charge. Maybe it’s that person who always seems to control the conversation. Other people in the group start looking down, shifting in their seats, tapping nervously with their pencils.

The discussion continues and you find yourself in territory that is uncomfortable or perhaps even goes against your moral code or worse – it ventures into the illegal.

What do you do?

We’ve all been there. Whether it’s sitting on the school bus or in a corporate board room, we sit quietly by while the group makes a decision for which we don’t agree or that we know is wrong.

Or do we?

With the guilty verdict and subsequent post-trial commentary in the Sandusky abuse trial, much has been speculated about those who allegedly did nothing. People who heard rumors or perhaps even had first person or “victim” accounts that an adult was being inappropriate with children and yet they did nothing. We are now reading about emails that raise even more questions about who knew what and when.

The power of a group to influence our individual decisions has been documented since the beginning of time.

Researchers in group theory have suggested that there are qualities of groups that make them more likely to fall into faulty decision making and groupthink.

Groups that feel invulnerable based on their past history of making good decisions. Groups that share stereotypes of those outside of the group. Groups that have a heightened view of their own morality. Groups that perceive pressure from outside the group. Groups that exist in a climate where it’s not okay to express different opinions (i.e where there is a leader with immense power). Groups that are secluded because of their location or the organizational structure. Mind guards in a group – those people who serve to censor or protect the group from conflict.

Groups that rely on rationalization rather than rational decision making.

Irving Janus and others who have studied this group phenomenon have identified several situations in which the faulty decision making that is groupthink had tragic and historical implications. The invasion of Pearl Harbor. The Bay of Pigs incident during the Kennedy administration. The Challenger shuttle disaster.

According to historians, in these and other similar incidents, someone either knew, had access to the right decision or was aware of potentially negative consequences but doing the right thing became almost impossible.

What has become known to some as “the Penn State scandal” may soon be held up as another example of individual group members, groupthink and protecting the organization rather than doing the right thing.

In the face of this common but powerful group dynamic, it makes the decisions by those who did break free from peer pressure and who went against the group as almost heroic.

The Clinton County Children and Youth Services social worker who made the first official report of suspected abuse. The mom who wouldn’t let it go. The janitorial staff. The graduate assistant football coach.

Their names and contributions in uncovering this scandal are second page news stories but should be examples to all of us. Character, as they say, is doing the right thing when no one is looking or when doing so won’t get you any personal gain. Doing the right thing when you know the potential consequences is the personification of bravery.

Penn State and other organizations like it should take from this long and sordid ordeal that there needs to be in place, a confidential and “no fear of retaliation” process to report wrong doing on campus and in university sponsored programs. There needs to be real protection for those people who do the right thing.

As for the rest of us, it’s a good lesson in standing up, taking a stand and reporting what we know is wrong, particularly when others are at risk of harm. For most of us, the questions aren’t life and death. Sometimes the results are just hurt feelings or damaged relationships.

How many of us have watched a situation at work or in our social circles where someone made a decision that we knew was wrong or would hurt someone else. Are you complicit by walking away or does that just remove you from the situation? Does letting it go one time make it easier to turn away the next time? Do we sit idly by and let it happen?

Doing the right thing can be uncomfortable. It sometimes means negative consequences. In many groups, the squeaky wheel gets way more than just the grease. Unfortunately, as we have learned, there can be no other decision.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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