"If leaders have integrity, nothing else matters, and if they do not have integrity, nothing else matters." - David Gergen
At the core of all things desired of a leader, integrity and ethical behavior maintains a high ranking. According to a 2016 study which consisted of 195 leaders in 15 countries and over 30 global organizations, leaders with high morals and ethical standards were regarded as having the characteristics of excellent leadership (2018, Mickens, E., When Purpose Exceeds Profits). If this is true then why is it difficult to maintain or even obtain high ethical standards in an organization?
Character-building takes a low position on the totem pole in this rapidly advancing acidic and toxic work environment. Production, performance, and profits are often found to be key drivers in an organization. The development of what is viewed as "soft skills" are placed on the back burner until an ethical breach occurs, then there's an outcry for policy change and on-the-spot corporate training.
Moral blindness occurs when performance doesn’t reflect beliefs or values. Often people aren’t aware of or concerned with the consequences connected to their actions. This easily happens when incentives are associated with meeting goals or there’s pressure to perform and managers either encourage or intimidate staff to do what’s necessary to reach them. Leaders who display volitional acts of misconduct are self-serving. Ethical fading transpires when bending the rules for the sake of meeting demands askew moral judgment (Bazerman and Tenbrunsel, 2011). This reveals the limitations of the human mind and the need for ethical self-awareness.
Although the moral compass seems to be broken, perhaps it simply needs fine tuning. Here are three (3) steps to guide your organization back on track or to ensure it remains on the right course:
"Reward and punishment structure.“ Leaders adopt this practice to reward appropriate behavior with incentives or punish unacceptable, inappropriate behavior which removes incentives.
Take corrective action against inappropriate behavior through creating and enforcing laws that have consequences attached if broken.
Ethical performance. The 2013 National Business Ethics Survey (NBES) is in sync with the two action steps above. It suggested that the new normal is ethical performance. Leadership teams should make ethical performance a prerequisite for career advancement." NBES further suggested that promotions and compensation increases be directed to those who honor company values.
Behaving ethically is a reflection of one’s character and defines who they really are as a human being. It is expected for a leader to have moral excellence and behave accordingly. When workers or followers work with leaders who display good moral behavior, they tend to commit to their jobs and perform well. So, when the leader is misleading, dissension and resentment spreads throughout the organization and ultimately everyone suffers if the ethical failure is not addressed in a timely manner.
Honestly, there is no one size-fits-all or even fits-most solution. The leader and her or his style plays a role in how efficiently ethics will be carried out in the workplace. A transformational leader, for example, is seen as a moral agent and will have high regards for enforcing ethical behavior and displaying it, whereas a laissez-fare leader could care less, just do what needs to be done, by any means necessary. A transactional leader comfortably uses rewards and punishment methods and would have no problems with the suggested stepsabove. They are willing to do what's needed to course correct and keep moving forward.
In practically every comprehensive leadership development program you will find a session that pertains to ethics. You have to know the climate of your organization in order to roll out an impactful program otherwise, you'll have a cookie-cutter, unproductive difficult to enforce, antiquated process. So, when putting together a business ethics component to your strategic plan and L&D program, ask the following questions: How is ethical behavior currently encouraged in your organization? What do you have in writing? Is ethics communicated frequently in your organization? What are the different ways it's communicated? How is it enforced and what are the consequences when unethical behavior occurs? Are whistleblowers protected? Employees and other stakeholders may observe misconduct in the leader(s). Any employee desiring to report the incident should feel comfortable to do so without fear of repercussion, job loss, or intimidation.
Every day we are able to read about a leader either voluntarily stepping down or strongly persuaded by the board of directors to remove themselves from their leadership roles, most of the time it is associated with an ethical failure gone too long. As we move into the 2nd half of this year ending the 2nd quarter, I want to encourage you to evaluate your strategic plan and office policies. You can't talk about inclusion and diversity without defining ethics in your organization. Schedule a meeting with other leaders and managers and if it isn't already done, create a plan that will incorporate the vision of how your organization will behave ethically. Craft your training program around that vision and it will help you and your team stay true to the company's values and purpose while making a profit.
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Bazerman, M. H., & Tenbrunsel, A. E. (2011). Blind spots: Why we fail to do what's right and what to do about it. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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