Remember the shower scene from the movie “Psycho” — specifically the music? Those jabbing, thrusting screeches from an orchestra’s string section make you feel nervous, jittery, and perhaps on the brink of going a little psycho yourself.

Well, now researchers have used that score to demonstrate a point organizational leaders may want to consider: High levels of anxiety and perceptions of threat can make employees act less ethically and more dishonestly.

The researchers, professors of organizational behavior at North Carolina and management at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, respectively, wanted to see how people would behave when subjected to anxiety-inducing stimuli. They set up an experiment in which one group of volunteers were exposed to the “Psycho” theme, while another heard the soothing strains of Handel’s “Water Music.” While listening to the music on headphones, the participants were given a series of scenarios in which unethical behavior was described, and were asked to rate on a 1-7 scale how likely they would be to engage in such activity themselves.

Anxiety made a difference. The “Psycho” group was, on average, 23% more willing to act unethically than the other.

Feeling threatened

The researchers replicated and expanded on their findings in five further experiments, one of which singled out the component of anxiety that actually caused the higher dishonesty levels. This component was the perception of threat. When people feel threatened, they’re more likely to seize any opportunity to defend themselves, even if that defense isn’t honest or ethical.

Another of the six experiments looked at workplace surveys of supervisors on their employees’ ethical/unethical behavior, and of employees on their own anxiety levels. The experiment showed a tight correlation between feelings of anxiety and likelihood of acting unethically.

It seems pretty clear: People — including employees — who feel anxious and threatened are more likely to act in undesirable ways. There’s a powerful message there for leaders.

Ambient apprehension

Making matters worse, anxiety is pervasive. The researchers, citing a World Health Organization survey, note that the United States is the most anxious nation on earth. Almost one-third — 31% — of those surveyed by the WHO reported having had feelings of apprehension, nervousness and/or anxiety.

No excuse

Nobody is saying that anxiety or feelings of threat should be considered blanket excuses for specific employees who engage in dishonest or unethical behavior. Every organization has, or should have, policies discouraging and/or penalizing such behavior, which can be extremely harmful to morale and even customer relations.

But if leadership wants to reduce the odds that employees as a group will behave unethically, one thing that’s worth considering is whether your organization, like “Psycho,” is giving people the willies.

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