Bring ethics and character to the forefront of everyday organizational work
We often think of organizational ethics in the context of rules and restrictions, whether as regulatory guardrails or as professional codes of conduct. While these are critical to guide organizational and professional behavior, they can obscure the larger responsibilities and opportunities related to ethical leadership. And they don’t fully support the decisions and actions that professionals take every day.
At a macro level, organizations increasingly must recognize their part as players in, and contributors to, social, economic, and ecological arenas. One recent survey revealed that consumers believe “companies have a moral obligation to ensure they have a positive impact on people and biodiversity,” with the push coming especially from Generation Z and Millennial consumers.1 Another global study by the Zeno Group found that 94% of consumers say “it is important for the companies they engage with to have a strong Purpose,” in which “Purpose” includes factors such as “ethical and sustainable business practices,” “support for important social causes,” and “diverse and inclusive culture.”2 Increasingly, organizations are inspected on more dimensions than shareholder value or other traditional performance metrics—dimensions that point directly to ethics.
At a more micro level, ethics inform the quality and output of daily interactions among professional colleagues, where there is an expectation of trustworthiness and accountability so people can succeed in their work together. Especially as organizations shift to increased digital collaboration—a 2020 McKinsey & Company study found that 85% of surveyed business executives were accelerating implementation of technologies to enable digital interaction and collaboration among employees, in the wake of COVID-193—there is an even greater need to ensure that work relationships are founded on trust. Whether organizations operate in person or remotely, ethics provide the glue that holds them together from day to day, and a platform for excellent performance.
Too often, however, ethics operate in the background rather than as an examined, foreground element in daily work. And that is a missed opportunity.
Ethics remind us of our connectedness and guide our better actions
When we apply an ethical lens to our thinking, decisions, and actions, we see how we are part of a larger system. We can understand that the choices we make affect others, and that others’ choices affect us. We recognize interdependency. We think about time differently. We have a different perspective on our obligations.
With ethics as a guide, we ask questions such as:
- What is the right thing to do?
- What is our responsibility to others?
- How can we be of service?
- What might be the effects of our decisions in the near and long term?
- What is the greater good, and how can we support it?
- How do we ensure that we are trustworthy in what we say and do?
- How do we elicit everyone’s best contributions?
- How do we invite all voices and encourage them to be heard?
- In our words, actions, and commitments, how do we ensure that we do no harm?
These are important questions. How we answer them says a lot about our reputation, and whether people will want to engage with us. As a practical matter, asking ethical questions can inform every level of daily organizational work:
- What products and services we create, and for whom
- Whom we partner with—up and down our supply chain, and as we forge collaborations
- Whom we hire and promote
- How we design and run meetings
- How we manage and reward performance
- Where we invest
- How we make decisions
- What we report to our shareholders and stakeholders
- And more
Applying an ethical lens, and asking ethical questions, are not passive undertakings. Put active time and attention to them regularly—in groups and teams, and on your own.
Ethics help you to do better work with colleagues
Ethics draw strength from what the late moral philosopher Bernard Gert called “common morality”—a recognition that there are certain moral rules (such as “Do not deceive” and “Keep your promises”) that protect the interests of each person in a relationship, and that therefore become reasonable expectations we have of one another.4 When you and I keep our promises to each other, we can transact business together.
Ethics remind us that we do not exist alone, and that we each carry daily responsibility for the functional success of joint work. Organizational codes of conduct may provide guardrails, but it ultimately falls to the individual professional to decide to do the right thing on their own and with colleagues, over and over again, every day. For that reason, exemplary professionals attend to their ethical responsibilities actively, and help colleagues do the same. In addition, they develop skills in ethical decision-making and in navigating ethical challenges.
How to support excellent ethics at work each day
It takes intentionality to make ethics and ethical practices prominent within an organization and across a workforce. Here are five suggestions to move ethics to the forefront of daily organizational work:
- Infuse ethics directly into important decisions. One model to consider comes from business philosopher Peter Koestenbaum, whose Leadership Diamond is composed of four “leadership imperatives”—ethics, vision, courage, and reality. For Koestenbaum, ethics means “caring about people; being sensitive and of service to them; and behaving in accordance with moral principles.”5 Positioned in equal standing to vision, courage, and reality, ethics in this model can serve as both filter and touchstone to decision-making.
- Make ethics a regular ingredient in meetings and discussions. Ask questions such as, “What is the right thing to do in this situation?” “What actions would serve the greatest good?” “How might our choices affect our reputation?” “What are we doing to further enhance our trustworthiness?” “Where might our character and ethical standards be under threat?” “How can we be of greater service?”
- Amplify ethics to improve daily work. Introduce ethics-focused tools and practices to make daily work more effective, in the areas of interpersonal communication, ideation, decision-making, work standards, coordination, action, and feedback.
- Inject learning-and-reflection moments into the flow of work. Pause work periodically to momentarily consider ethical questions with colleagues, such as “In what we’re doing now or in what we’ve just done, are we showing up as our very best?” “What are we learning from this situation that will help us to be more ethical?” “What ethical considerations should we remember as we move forward?”
- Make ethics a centerpiece of daily management. Invite your team leaders and supervisors to develop pragmatic skills in ethics and character-building, alongside other functional and management skills, so they can incorporate them in everyday team leadership.
Excellent ethics—beyond what is required by regulation, and expressed instead through the character and daily actions of every organizational professional—are requirements for organizations that wish to offer sustainable value. By bringing ethics to the forefront of organizational work and decision-making, organizations can make outstanding contributions as they demonstrate exemplary, ethical leadership.
1 2020 Union for Ethical BioTrade Biodiversity Barometer. ↩
2 2020 Zeno Group Strength of Purpose Study. ↩
3 McKinsey Global Institute, “What 800 Executives Envision for the Postpandemic Workforce,” September 23, 2020. ↩
4 Bernard Gert, Common Morality: Deciding What to Do, 2004. ↩
5 Peter Koestenbaum, Leadership Diamond, PiB.net. ↩
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