John Kroencke: “Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stop” by Max Bazerman

Written by Harvard Business School professor Max Bazerman, Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stop is published by Princeton University Press and features glowing praise from notables such as Cass Sunstein and Steven Pinker. Given this background, one expects a far different book than the one that it is.

The basic idea of the book is that when people think about the cause of unethical actions, they often fail to consider the many people who enabled the actions through various degrees of complicity. Relatedly, those who enable bad actors don’t think about their own role and the aggregate role of others in similar positions. At the outset, Bazerman claims, “In contrast to past accounts of these stories, Complicit will focus on the overlooked importance of others who were complicit in the bad behaviour.” (page 6) This is a sensible perspective, and one that I hoped would be investigated with sensitivity and precision. However, the book deals with an interesting ethical topic in a way that staggers in both senses of the word. 

The book consists of 11 chapters divided into three sections. After an introductory chapter, the first seven chapters present readers with profiles of complicit actors arranged by the type of complicity. Bazerman begins the book with two chapters on those who are most clearly complicit in extremely unethical acts (“true partners” and “collaborators”). As the book progresses through the second section, the degree of complicity declines with five chapters on “those who benefit from privilege, those who are true believers, those who defer to authority and loyalty, those who rely on their trust of others, and those who create and accept unethical systems” (page 12). The final section has one chapter on the psychology of complicity (though this is also covered in some of the chapters) before ending with two applied chapters: one on dealing with complicity on a personal level and another on developing institutional strategies to prevent complicity.

The march through the case studies might have worked if the case studies weren’t as high-profile and there were more of a focus on each example. Or, perhaps, if they were interspersed with the potential methods to stop a particular type of complicity shown in an example. Instead, the reader is left lurching as the author discusses, among others: Hitler, Trump (my worries began when the two were separated by seven words and a semi-colon in the introduction), the Sacklers, Weinstein, Elizabeth Holmes and Adam Neumann, along with many somewhat lesser-known figures. There is great range in the type of misdeed committed and the types of complicity that enabled the misdeed. The institutions in which these figures operated, and the incentives faced by those surrounding them varied considerably as well. Despite the often-enthralling stories presented, the reader is left adrift without much real explanation or robust ideas about how to stop complicity.

Much of the book is written in a way that suggests genuine concern with the misdeeds presented in the case studies and the various degrees of complicity that enabled them. This is often good, but in some cases, like the chapter “Benefiting from Privilege,” it reads like an older colleague trying to signal his ability to adjust to a changing landscape. This is part of a broader identity crisis for the book, which covers a lot but explains little about each of the wide range of ways that complicity can present itself in different contexts.

I held out hope for more specifics to be dealt with in the final chapters (pages 157–216) but was for the most part disappointed. These chapters dealing with the theoretical explanations for complicity and tangible steps that one can take to reduce it are themselves as meandering and full of journalistic anecdotes as the earlier chapters. After another bizarre introduction about Hitler and Trump, the first chapter of this final section of the book suggests it will elaborate on the psychological reasons for complicity. While it offers some detail and academic research, the things offered as explanations include the perceived differences between commission and omission, fear of retaliation, and a slippery slope of smaller misdeeds slowly escalating. These basic explanations might be sufficient had they been pursued in some depth, but they are dealt with cursorily. The following chapter offers some more tangible insights into strategies at the individual level for stopping complicity (reducing the risks to speaking up, deliberating more in advance, recognizing blind spots, and enlarging our circle of concern). But here again, the second part of the chapter is padded out with profiles of whistleblowers and others who actively overcame the tendency to become complicit. The final and perhaps most interesting chapter looks at the structural reasons for complicity and organizational tactics for preventing it.

Despite the weaknesses of the book, there are sections that are of real interest. Besides the most famous and compelling stories of Theranos and Purdue Pharma, the comparatively less well-known examples from later in the book may offer more relevant examples for readers. For instance, it is interesting to learn about the level of complicity involved in the Volkswagen emissions testing scandal, where senior members of the regional German government and trade unions were aware of the fraud but overwhelmed by their interests.

Separately, Bazerman’s personal role in the still ongoing scandals in psychology and behavioural economics where researchers such as Dan Ariely managed to secure global fame and permanent positions at top universities with research that is now clearly discredited in some cases because of outright data fraud. The personal email correspondence with his fellow coauthors (including Ariely) that Bazerman reproduces offer a new and interesting look at the topic. But even here he steers clear of the more interesting questions about the broader institutional context of the academy.

The most interesting parts of the book are those that deal with complicity encouraged by systems and relatedly institutional solutions to complicity. Part of Chapter 8 deals with the compelling topic of goal setting in organizations namely how explicit goals can overwhelm more tacit ethical standards and how conflicts of interest can create ripe situations for complicity. In some situations, the systemic problems were intentionally created, but in many of these scenarios, they only occurred because of accidental confluences of interests rather than conspiracy. Both are of interest and ripe for hard thinking about solutions. The most thoughtful solutions are offered in Chapter 11, but I came away thinking that the viability of any institutional solution requires a specificity that couldn’t be achieved by the scattershot approach of the book.

Sadly, even the more useful and relevant aspects of the book are drowned out by the repeated and sustained focus on lighting rods. A search of the text reveals that variations of “Trump” appear in the main text of the book nearly as much as any variation of “complicit.” “Nazi” appears 26 times. Even beyond this, after all the pages over which Bazerman has journalistically recounted the many, many examples of complicity, there is bizarrely little sustained explanation or ideas for how to structure organizations to prevent complicity. Readers should not seek out Complicit.


“Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stop” by Max Bazerman was published in 2023 (UK) by Princeton University Press (ISBN: 978-0691236544) 264 pp.