For the past three decades, I’ve been crisscrossing the country, speaking to large and small businesses and organizations on ethics and values. The vast majority of my audiences agree that embracing ethical behavior just makes good business sense. In fact, I can hardly think of more than one person who has ever disagreed with that premise. So after three decades with ethical problems still making headlines, I began to wonder, then, what’s the problem?
My answer is twofold: failed leadership and the lack of moral awareness.
Failed leadership is not about leadership skill sets, how many degrees one has, one’s title or position. Failed leadership is about the lack of commitment, empowerment and transparency in the individual and therefore, in the organization.
The Skout Group, LLC, is a nationally known ethics resource company, and in their research case study, Getting Beyond the Numbers: How to Identify the Root Cause of Unethical Conduct, here’s what they conclude: “The heart of most unethical conduct, as well as lack of reporting violations, can be attributed to workers who feel alienated and disengaged. These negative attitudes crop up when employees can’t see or live their personal values in the workplace.”
Why haven’t leaders recognized this? What are leaders doing about employees who feel alienated and disengaged? This opens up a variety of compliance and ethics issues in and of itself.
Commitments are something that one needs to work on continually. This needs to be a concentrated focus of your ethics training, together with discussions on values of the organization and how to implement and live out that commitment in the everyday course of doing business.
In my experience and research, the biggest ethical leadership challenges today are:
- Doing business day-to-day. That includes considering the long-term interests of customers, not just the short-term interests of the company.
- Doing the right thing. If we were to expand that just a little bit more, doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason is good business today.
- Being careful about what we ask others to do, because they listen with their eyes. If we ask someone to do something that we’re not willing to do or find distasteful, etc., what is that saying to those who work with us and for us? Be careful about what we ask others to do.
Leaders need to be discerning as to the cause and effect of decision making now more than ever before because, as mentioned, people listen with eyes, not with their ears!
Lack of moral awareness
What about moral awareness? Here’s one of the best definitions of moral awareness that I received from a client of mine:
“When a person is in touch with their innate sense of morality and can feel the moral component of the situation—one of my clients that helped me with this definition said it’s kind of like being in touch with your body. If you know that there’s something wrong, there’s a pain. It’s an innate sense that there is something wrong; it needs to be attended to. That’s what being morally aware means. There’s something, you know, about what you feel, about your reaction to a situation that says that something’s not right here. You can call it intuition, you can call it conscience, you can call it reason, whatever you want to call it, it’s an innate sense that, something isn’t right here and I have to figure out what to do about it.”
Therefore, there really are moral obligations, particularly for leaders.
Always put people first in decision-making.
I research paper I recently read said that 57 percent of all companies that have downsized in the last few years still have the same problems, which tells me that while the problem wasn’t with the employees, they were the ones made to pay the price for the organization’s problem. Maybe it was the process, maybe it was the leaders, maybe it was whatever, but people need to be first in decision making, particularly in the long term, because no matter what the organization or business, they all say, “People are our most important assets.” Then why aren’t people a priority in many areas of decision making?
Respect the individual’s human dignity.
You have a right as a leader to disagree with my behavior; you do not have the right to challenge my human dignity or my self-esteem. There is a difference between telling someone, “You are the dumbest thing next to the jackass,” and saying, “Normally you don’t make decisions this poorly. I was wondering why this decision was made and how you came to that?” See the difference? Remember, affirm personhood, disagree with behavior.
Treat everybody fairly.
Do the rules apply for the CEO down to the new hire? The last thing you need as a leader is a chink in that armor—that there are different rules for management/leadership than there are for the rest of the employees. Everybody must play by the same rules, and this is the purpose of a code of ethics. Here’s my analogy: If you invite me to your house to play a game, shouldn’t you explain the rules before we play? And what happens if you change the rules in the middle of the game? What happens to your credibility and the credibility of the game? That’s the reason for a code of ethics; these are the rules by which we play here at this company — they will not change, and they apply to all. If you’d like to join us, these are the rules. If not, then maybe you need to find a job someplace else. That code of ethics (which includes mission statement and value statement) exists because the key point is that everybody must play by the same rules—everybody.
If you have a short memory, always tell the truth. If honesty is a moral principle, then don’t chip away at it. Be honest. Yet how many of these moral obligations do we see in today’s workplace? These obligations are innate capabilities that leaders today more than ever need to address, communicate and model in their organizations.
To be morally aware, I have three suggestions for you:
- Commit to moral principles. Many companies have value statements, but still have problems internally. This could be primarily because while the principles are nicely stated, there’s a distinction between what’s stated and the actual behavior of the employees. There has to be consistency and continuity. That’s what commitment means—that what you say is how you live. What we say is how we do our business. What we say is how our customers experience working with our company. What we say is how we do business with our vendors and suppliers, and they can count on it, unequivocally.
- The morally aware leader needs to understand that there’s risk involved in living out those principles. There are risks in every decision that a leader makes, but if you have a foundation of moral principles and you know what is right, you need to be sensitive and deal with the realization that someone, somewhere on that leadership chain isn’t going to like it. The question is: Are you still willing to do it? Because of those principles, are you still willing to make the stand? Are you still willing to speak out? And are you still willing to stand up for those principles, those values, in the workplace?
- Have the resolve when needed, to pay the price. I call this the “PTP” factor. What is your price-to-pay for what you want to do? Particularly as a leader, if you can’t pay, you better walk away, because there’s an absolute in life that’s just like gravity: what goes around always comes around, positive or negative. It all comes around. Have the resolve. What’s your line in the sand? Here’s where I stand; I will not cross it.
Therefore, if we truly believe that good ethics is good business, consider a large part of the problem is failed leadership and the lack of moral awareness. So what’s next? We can start with the investment in the values-based training for leaders of the organization and work to instill a sense of moral awareness throughout the organization, thus increasing the odds that the gap between what is professed as values and what is modeled in behavior will become increasingly smaller.
Failed leadership and a lack of moral awareness are both conscious choices. Can a person really say that he was not aware that there’s a moral dimension to choosing? I doubt it. Failed leadership—that’s certainly a conscious choice. People choose to be dishonest. People choose to cheat, etc. These are choices and, as with all choices, there are consequences, good or evil. It is the leader’s responsibility to see what others do not see, to discern what others may not and to act with fortitude, conviction and moral purpose. This then becomes exemplary moral leadership.