The Power of Words and Why it Matters Today
It may come as a surprise, but “ethics” has a negative connotation for many in a business context. Similarly, the compliance profession is often viewed negatively, as impinging on employees’ freedom. But those of us on the inside have an entirely different perspective, thinking of compliance as synonymous with integrity. Is it time, then, to rebrand the profession?
This article may stir up a few emotions for you. Good. That’s the intent. You see, words have power. They have emotion. They have context. And they have this intangible, subconscious, instinctive reaction that we don’t even know how to discern but which affects the way we think, interpret, speak and act.
I’ve been struggling with positive and negative reactions to words since I created my ethics game nine years ago. The first words out of mentors’ and advertising gurus’ mouths were “lose the word ‘ethics!'” Really?! When I pushed back, I was told “ethics” is perceived to have a negative connotation – the word brings up memories of unpleasant experiences.
Huh. Never in a million years would I have come up with this on my own. I was raised to believe ethics was a positive value that would lead to great things.
Let’s do a test. When I say the word “compliance,” what instinctively comes up for you? Is it a positive or negative reaction? For most people, compliance means something mandatory, and therefore usually something unpleasant or undesirable. Compliance implies there is a lack of freedom because we are restricted in some way or have some rule we must follow. This could be good or bad. But most people take it as bad. Case in point: how many people would voluntarily read the company code of conduct if there were not some compliance requirement to do this (or they were in some sort of trouble)?
Now let’s try another word. When I say the word “integrity” what instinctively comes up for you? How does this word feel? Is it more open? More positive? Does it offer more possibility? Is this an attribute that you value or take pride in? Hmm. For most people, this word generates a positive reaction. I’ve used the title “Chief Integrity Builder” on my card for at least the past four years, and it always gets a comment. It gets noticed. It generates questions about what I do to build integrity. It sparks curiosity. In short, it has a more positive and open association – gives space for something more desirable.
I’m writing this article because I was recently told about a woman who was just given the title Chief Integrity Officer instead of Compliance & Ethics Officer. The reaction to this title change was “intriguing” and it sparked a discussion about how the words “compliance” and “ethics” are viewed. The conversation led to a radical idea about whether or not the compliance and ethics officer should be rebranded, perhaps using words like “integrity,” “trust” and “accountability.”
So let’s think about this for a minute. What is it that every compliance and ethics officer wants most in the world?
I know a few folks with this title, and most of them tell me they’d just like people to be honest, follow the rules and stop creating problems that are expensive for the business to resolve. It is no fun to be forced to fire someone who’s worked for the company for years, but did something that caused significant harm to the organization without even thinking about the consequences. I know; I’ve had to do this. It’s also no fun to have a position that nobody respects and only is found useful when there’s a problem nobody else wants to tackle. Been there, done that as well!
So what would it be like to have a position where people were curious, more respectful and more open to creating strategic alliances? How would it feel if, instead of hunting down misconduct, we instead flipped the coin to the other side and rewarded good behavior? Compliance and ethics searches for rule-breakers, and audits make people feel inadequate, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. Integrity builders look for positive behaviors. We all believe we are ethical; I’ve written about this many times. The challenge is that each of us has a different perspective about what is ethical based on our own culture, background, experience, family and religious beliefs.
I learned through real-life scenarios that people could justify their actions, choices and decisions based on the power of the words written and their interpreted positive or negative nuances. Words really do have power for the average person. In every single workshop or speaking engagement I deliver, I use this scenario: What is one word that defines ethics for you, and would your team have the same answer?
It is my mission to change the perception of ethics from something negative to something positive, and asking this question is the way I start the conversation on the positive value of ethics.
We are hearing a lot about people only buying from those they trust. We are hearing more about integrity in branding, and I am certainly getting positive responses when I advertise accountability as one of my outcomes for a workshop. Why not tap into this shift for the compliance and ethics world and rebrand to something more positive?
I challenge you to ask your teammates and colleagues the same question: What is one word that defines ethics for you, and would your team have the same answer?