We went to the Ritz-Carlton for lunch after a stressful court hearing that resulted in a big win for our client. We were looking forward to having a nice steak lunch, but the managing partner was not happy about the table and demanded a change. “This isn’t the table my secretary reserves for me,” he said. The young waiter immediately found the manager who reveals that no other tables are available.
We tried to move on, but we were once again interrupted by the managing partner. “Am I the only one annoyed by the view? Why is there construction happening today?” The waiter attempts to explain but isn’t persuasive. “You need to up your game,” the managing partner replies. The air was thick with tension. When the waiter walks away, someone jokes about the waiter’s competence. This pleased the managing partner, who responded with his own disparaging insult. We all laugh.
If you were present at that lunch would you let the managing partner know that you dislike his behavior and language? Would you set a better example? Or remain speechless?
I didn’t realize it then, but that scene illustrated the psychological dynamics of a team that was primed to cross ethical lines. First, there was omnipotence: when a person feels so exalted and entitled that they think the rules of fair behavior don’t apply to them. Second, we have cultural numbness: when others play along and gradually begin to embody and accept deviant standards. Finally, we see justified neglect: when people don’t speak up about ethical breaches because they are thinking of more short-term consequences like remaining in good graces with the powerful.
Large ethics breaches start small. Most of us are neither saints nor criminals but well-meaning leaders. We sometimes fail to consult our moral compass while speeding ahead in a landscape full of pitfalls and tripwires.
So how do you know when you, or your team, are on the road to an ethical failure? Here’s more on how to identify three types of ethical lapses that can lead to problems for your organization.
Omnipotence. Many ethical failures have an origin in the feeling that you are untouchable, invincible, and hyper-capable. Crossing a line feels less like a violation and more like what you are entitled to. You have earned the right to redraw the lines. In the lunch story above, it was no coincidence that the managing partner’s condescending performance comes after a big court hearing.
Although a rush from a big win is inevitable, it’s important to spot when it becomes a liability. You likely have a problem when few people are willing to keep you grounded. When was the last time someone told you no? Are your decisions met only with deference, applause, or silence?
To fight this feeling, start owning your flaws. You are not above it all. Assume you have weaknesses and remember them. Encourage an “obligation to dissent” among your team.
Cultural numbness. The bearings of your moral compass will shift toward the culture of your organization or team. The changes will be subtle. You will gradually get caught up in the group’s value system.
Cultural numbness is hard to detect. It can be where you become numb to the language and behavior of others. You won’t see this as a clear choice on a path. But you may see it as wandering down a muddy road, where there you lose track of what is right and wrong. Your warning bells stop ringing.
To counter this numbness, start looking for the signs. Would you be comfortable telling a judge or a journalist what’s happening in your company? Just like a fish doesn’t know it’s surrounded by water, you can’t always understand the situation without an outsider’s perspective. Turn to a trusted friend or family member, who can detect shifts that you cannot see. Regularly contrast your organization’s culture with your own values. Remind yourself that the rest of the world may not work the same way.
Justified neglect. Our brains are skillful at excusing minor incursions when there is a real prize at stake — and when the chance of getting caught is low.
Would you report an incident if a speck of makeup fell into a batch of medicine? A lab assistant forgot to remove all her makeup. It’s impossible to detect. Would you destroy the batch? Would you change your mind knowing that patients might suffer or even die from a serious production delay?
Many leaders have faced a decision between taking the reward or doing the right thing. That slope begins when you start to rationalize actions and tell yourself or others, “We have to bend the rules a little to get things done here,” “This is an exceptional situation,” or “We are here to make money, not be a charity.”
Those first slips cascade into more. Then they turn into habits you know are bad. But they start to feel excusable and acceptable, given the circumstances. Eventually, it becomes part of your moral fabric. It is hard to pinpoint specifically when a significant line is crossed, but it’s much easier to correct course at the very source instead of further down the line.
Power corrodes more than it corrupts. This is usually a result of clever justifications of ethical neglect. You can resist this dynamic by creating social contracts that obligate both you and your coworkers to do right. Reward ethical behavior and define your boundaries. Make a list of things you will not do for pleasure or profit. Keep it in a nearby place to read regularly. Show it to your team as a reminder.
Honest Conversations Prevent Ethical Lapses
Honest conversations are a vital tool to help leaders ethically act. Ethical companies have positive cultures, good brand image, prevent scandals, and loyal employees.
Start with yourself.
Reflect on your purpose and values in life. Take a moment for an honest conversation with yourself. Figure out what matters to you. To begin, write down important choices you made in your life (e.g., job choice, friends, spouse) and then question yourself about what motivated those decisions. Are you working for your company despite more pay offered by other companies? How much is a friendly, collaborative, and ethical culture worth to you?
Leading by example instills respect and lets your employees see that you truly believe in them and trust them to work. Being an ethical leader involves more than simply stating you plan to act for the general good of all. You should make an action plan for how your actions at work can make you an ethical leader.
- Remember actions mean more than words. Ethical managers don’t make promises they can’t keep.
- Practice good communication. Remain transparent in all business dealings. Never lie or mislead others for the benefit of the business or yourself. Keep employees and associates in the loop about all dealings.
- Provide appropriate training. Ethical behavior should always be emphasized through training opportunities.
Arrange your team.
Begin a discussion with your team members. What are their hopes for the kind of organization they want to build? This kind of conversation will allow you to test your own advocacy, and then guide your group to a consensus. What kind of legacy do you want to leave?
Be ready to be deflected.
You will feel short-term pressure to meet expectations. This can derail your aspiration to lead with values. Research explains that there is an unavoidable gap between what we preach and what we practice. Don’t let your business get caught off guard when things don’t go as intended. Schedule regular conversations to check in on your organization’s ethical goals.
Don’t wait for the whistleblower
Lower-level employees often fear speaking the truth to power. It is particularly dangerous for those employees when they identify an ethical violation by someone who controls their paycheck. It is essential to create a process that provides a psychologically safe place for employees to talk about their concerns.
Hold structured meetings with ground rules — no emotional outbursts, blaming, or defensiveness. This helps you listen and understand the issue faced by your team. If you aspire to lead ethically and with high purpose, you must consistently have these honest conversations with yourself, your team, and your organization.