Post Covid-19 ethical leadership becomes the new norm

Many organisations today find themselves operating in survival mode and the temptation to protect individual positions and not to rock the boat is higher than ever before.  However, now is also the time when organisational leaders have not only an opportunity but an obligation to review the way things work and the thinking behind it.

As society applauds the pro-social contributions of our essential workers, there is an expectation that others will demonstrate the same societal concerns.  Already high profile corporate leaders, including Unilever and Coca-Cola, have spoken out to support the Black Lives Matter movement as well as signalling their disapproval of Facebook’s hosting of President Trump’s divisive politics.  The need to demonstrate ethical standards and aspirations has never been greater.

Society’s expectations of organisational leaders are ever-evolving, and today its focus is on its positive social impacts as they shape society’s social progress.  So too, customers and critical stakeholders, are looking to reward organisations that are pro-social and are less willing to forgive self-interested leaders who oversee win-lose outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we’re all in this together. So, what does that mean for today’s organisational leaders?  How can they demonstrate that they are with their people, and how can their actions demonstrate ethical leadership? Since ethics at its core is about relationships and how our actions impact on others, it means leaders more than ever before must seek to balance what’s right for business with what’s good for both their organisational members and broader society by delivering tangible social benefits.

Behaviour science has shown us that ethics is, in fact, contextual. We are a different person in different contexts, and each organisation’s unique context or culture is the primary determinant of how its members will think and behave. If leaders are now seeking to ensure their organisations are more attune with changing societal values and their members have the skills to adhere to changing stakeholder expectations, then leaders need to change the organisational context first.

The Covid-19 lockdown and recalibration of the way we work are providing an ideal opportunity to rethink and redesign organisational life going forward. Behaviour science has provided the necessary tools to design organisational systems that are far more “ fit for purpose” than ever before.  Leaders need to slow the pace and surround themselves with peers capable of challenging their thinking and behaviour as well as be willing to be guided by social scientists as they step out of comfort zones. Organisations can’t pivot if they can’t answer pivotal questions.  What sort of future do we want? Do we have the skills to engage a remote workforce?  How can trust be built or rebuilt? What does it take to contribute to societal wellbeing, respond to social crises, foster hope in a better future, enable employees to create meaningful work lives and stakeholders’ have their concerns heard? Will existing leaders be a help or a hindrance? Are today’s systems and structures capable of becoming adaptive and responsive to our dynamic environment? How do we build a new set of skills for a world of discontinuous change?

Innovation starts at leadership levels. It is leaders who must purposely design an organisational culture that is in tune with the social nature of employees as well as designed to meet business needs.  To do this means tackling existing organisational assumptions and institutional barriers to ethical behaviour; surfacing and dismantling the prevailing clashes between espoused values and the unexamined managerial beliefs that thwart implementation.  As social pressures and norms are always changing, leaders need to be constantly self-evaluating their worldviews to ensure they are positively influencing their followers.  Are today’s leaders sending the right signals, modelling pro-social behaviour and overseeing systems and processes, enabling followers to be their best selves? Purposeful organisational cultural design is set to become the signature of an ethical leader.

Those with ethical ambition need to embrace science’s insights into personal biases, social motivations, mistakes of framing that spawn conduct risks and the power of rationalisations in promoting conduct risk. These insights easily demonstrate how it is the organisational context itself that determines the sorts of ethical or unethical behaviours that flourish.

Trust is an output of an ethical culture.  Ethical leaders embrace ethics because they recognise that at its core, it is about building positive relationships by seeking to make the best possible decisions concerning people, resources, and the environment to enable society to feels safe enough to anticipate a better tomorrow. The focus on the human dimension of business must become a leadership priority for the foreseeable future with leaders being proactive in building systems and processes that foster resilience while also enabling agile and responsive dynamics.  The ethics of the time is demanding organisational teams capable of helping move their people out of survival mode and back into focusing on the kinds of positive social futures we are capable of building together.

How will you ensure your team are capable of the actions necessary to embrace today’s ethical leadership mandate?

 

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Realigning Organisational Values Post Covid-19

Most organisations have guiding values signalling to employees and the marketplace how they will pursue success.  As employees begin to return to their places of work, it is essential to recognise how your organisational values can assist with regaining employee engagement.


The academic research in the values area shows that both individual employees, and organisations  can find themselves moving up and down a values continuum between foundation values and vision values. Link here.

Covid-19 and the resulting organisational and individual lockdowns have demonstrated how uncertainty can push both into foundation values. Leaders must now find ways to help both move back up into focus values where employees can get on with their jobs, and the organisation can thrive in a new context. Achieving these moves involves ongoing reassurance that leaders are focused on keeping employees safe while the organisation is realigning strategies to the new normal.

Talking about the organisation’s values and vision will provide a direction towards the desired future where the organisation is thriving. The pandemic has given everyone an experience of how quickly they can change when they must.  By so doing, all organisational members have become skilled in change management.

  • In foundation values employees focus on how to protect themselves are only engage minimally with the job in hand.
  • In focus values, employees trust their manager because they know what to expect, and their manager behaves in ways consistent with the organisation’s values. Employees can perform at their best and, together with leaders, can engage with a new vision for the organisation.
  • In vision values, employees are highly engaged because they are personally developing from their work experiences and a high performing workplace emerges.

Strong managers keep their people in focus values by modelling behaviour consistent with stated organisational values and doing it consistently. When managers or leaders say one thing but do another, their people downshift into foundation values because it is unsafe. Such a downshift robs them of workplace satisfaction while the organisation loses their engagement.

Values-led leaders/managers behave in ways consistent with stated values enabling their employees to move towards desired future states.  Here, they begin to see and embrace new possibilities for themselves and their employing organisation.

 

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Ethical Issues for Business Leaders during Covid19

Managing Values’ Dr Attracta Lagan discusses the key ethical issues business leaders need to consider during covid 19 with Niall Fitzgerald Head of Ethics & Governance from Charted Accountants Ireland

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Covid 19 responses provide insights for workplace redesign

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought some appalling consequences one unexpected impact has been our reappraisal and revaluing of the importance of our social world. Stephen Brookfield called them ‘disruptions’ and said that all real critical thinking comes from such disruptions. As a nation, as a society, as individuals, we have been forced to think beyond the economic. We are slowly beginning to recognise that it is not self-interest that makes for social progress; instead, it is a higher calling of which we are all capable. The sacrifices being made daily emergency workers who respond to this higher calling are a poignant daily reminder. Protecting human life and reducing harm has become the most critical accountability of those who call themselves leaders.

Civil society has never shone more brightly. We have witnessed inspiring, spontaneous grass-root actions such as the national #virtual kindness  movement, neighbourhoods of people singing from balconies and streets clapping to thank emergency workers. For nations stuck indoors, social media has become the outlet to show support for each other with singers and artists reaching out to their fans and performing requests from their lounge rooms. A flurry of innovative home videos, podcasts and improvising being released daily, highlighting the creativity of ordinary folk and a universal need to feel connected to humankind. This spontaneous global movement demonstrates our social interdependence and reliance on each other to feel safe, sane, and hopeful.  Our need for belonging and for social inclusion is the zeitgeist of the moment. In our defining moment, we can readily recognise that it is our fellow citizens, and not the marketplace, that gives us purpose, inspires us to loftier ideals and makes living worthwhile.

What is also now in stark relief is that our social natures, needs and desires, are too often silenced in workplaces. We have succumbed to the prevailing political culture of ‘economic self-interest’ as the only natural order.

Science, however, affirms it is because we are social by nature that we are predisposed to acting cooperatively or prosocially . Prosocial behaviours are those actions intended to help other people. They are characterised by a concern for the rights, feelings, and welfare of other people and demonstrated by sharing, helping, volunteering, and co-operating – the very behaviours we see dominating our COVID 19 social world.  As social beings, we are motivated by altruism, empathy, and a sense of purpose, as much as by extrinsic rewards.

Behaviour science shows us that the way societies behave is a consequence of the how they are designed. We can choose to learn from COVID-19 and redesign our society to serve our social needs better. Already, at the individual level, the crisis is challenging each of us to rethink our sense of self, our values priorities, our technological skills, our employability, our need for ongoing development to meet the demands of a new normal.

To rethink at a societal level, we will need the sort of leaders who can call on our higher natures to enable us to flourish.  One that can tap into our prosocial dispositions and gain our commitment to sharing the economic pain that will inevitably follow this crisis. We know such cooperation is possible. “JobKeeper” was the result of such collaboration, let us encourage similar partnerships between political parties.

Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to hit the pause button on what was our daily routines and underlying assumptions.  As we have seen employees embrace working remotely, we have also seen that micro-management is unnecessary and a barrier to good work. Many employees are flourishing amidst the opportunity to be self-directed challenging managers to rethink assumptions about employee capabilities.

We will also need to recognise, as so many Nordic countries have already done, that the marketplace is a social invention. It, too, can be better designed to distribute rewards and recognition to benefit the common good. Instead of self-interest being the driving force, cooperation can be purpose-built into the design of all our systems. Aspirations for “the common good” rather than “small government” needs to be debated more broadly to enable a more inclusive society to emerge.  There is no invisible hand that guides the marketplace; it is a social fiction that needs to be re-tuned to our social needs.

We can build a better society post-Covid-19 by drawing on scientific insights into how best humans flourish and by purposely designing the economy to serve society’s collective needs better. All we need to do is seize the moment!

 

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Refreshing organisational purpose

New generations are looking for a more balanced purpose for business –  one that seeks to profit by enhancing societal wellbeing.  At the same time, an increasingly diverse range of external stakeholders are asking for more social accountability from listed companies, led out by institutional investors and their demands for ESG accountabilities. This movement suggests that adopting virtues-based business ethics will provide executives with engaging new ways of enhancing the sustainability of their enterprises and mitigate against conduct risk.

Those seeking to build more ethical business cultures must work through both individuals and organisational systems. Virtue ethics asks each of us to clarify our ethical ambitions. It leverages off our identities as ethical people and enlists everyone’s commitment to building and safeguarding ethical standards. At the personal level, virtuous conduct involves ‘finding a way’ to respond to what might seem competing interests, such as:

  • an ethical orientation vs pragmatism
  • shareholder vs customer interests
  • balancing short and long-term goals
  • duty of care vs target or goal setting
  • fairness vs opportunistic or exploitative practices
  • self-interests vs organisational interests
  • truthfulness vs PR spin
  • being responsible for company assets but also a risk-taker
  • being respectful of others vs achieving goals
  • sustainable business growth vs unsustainable growth

At the organisational level key steps in building virtues into systems involve:

  1. Identifying how the existing culture promotes individualism rather than collaboration – the systemic cause of conduct risk. Developing plans to dismantle existing cultural barriers.
  2. Recognising our human needs to feel safe at work by building systems to, enable more inclusive and collaborative orientations to emerge.
  3. Measuring the existing trust gap between where you are and your trust goal and the virtuous path to close the gap.
  4. Insisting that all leaders develop personal action plans to promote desired virtues and embed in day-to-day actions.
  5. Use regular ethical culture reviews to learn what’s not working; track progress, provide feedback and feed into personal performance appraisals to embed accountability.

Sustainable enterprises depend on virtues similar to those identified with personal flourishing including self-awareness, honesty, fairness, trustworthiness and dependability. These same virtues that underpin employee and customer loyalties and build social capital and brand value. Honesty, for example, is a core virtue that enables positive relationships between individuals and organisations and between them and their customers. Leadership relies on the virtues of trust, accountability and integrity; being a productive team member depends on the virtues of cooperation and dependability and, at the managerial level, on virtues of fairness and empathy.

Embarking on an organisational journey to embed virtues will act as an accelerator for building trust and a shared language in which a renewed culture based on personal behaviour change can emerge.  This strategy leverages our identities as ethical people and responds to our need to be our best selves.

 

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How to Act Ethically at Work

Every workplace action has an ethical dimension arising from our interdependency with others.  Acting ethically means canvassing our impacts on others and eliminating potential adverse consequences. To forewarn yourself about workplace ethical challenges, pay attention to:

  1. Context: The context you are in will have a more substantial impact on how you act than your character! Be on the alert as social pressures predispose us to turn a blind eye to others’ misdoings or take our lead from them.
  2. Beware of Goals: If you find yourself justifying your behaviour choices as necessary to achieve your goals, you are on a slippery slope to more unethical behaviour. Stop and review your values and use these to guide your actions.
  3. Beware of Loyalty: We fail to see that our actions are unethical because we think personal gain must be involved. Lying to protect others or fudging figures to assist with team targets or cash flow is still unethical behaviour even if there is no personal gain.
  4. Inner thoughts: People behave unethically up to the point that they can make excuses for their behaviour. These “excuses” or rationalisations are the stories we tell ourselves – everyone’s doing it; no one gets hurt; x is dependent on me doing this; its time pressure that makes me act this way. Tune into your internal dialogue and stay alert to ethical slippage.

5.Well-being: We are more prone to act unethically when tired or stressed or being unfairly treated. In these situations, it pays to check out with a trusted colleague whether your proposed action is an ethical one.

  1. Framing: How we “frame” a decision can ignore its ethical dimension. If you hear yourself saying “it’s only a business decision”  chances are you are ignoring its ethical aspects. Avoid making decisions out of a narrow range of information.
  2. Friends and family: Be on alert when friends or family ask you to do something as your loyalty to them may override your duty to your organisation and leave you slipping into unethical actions.
  3. Competing values: Ethical challenges arise from competing values such admitting the organisation has made a mistake or incurring adverse media; short term wins being pursued at the expense of harmful consequences or micromanaging employees at the cost of their social needs. Anticipate, confront and discuss inevitable tensions to enable you to better manage them.

Learning to think ethically is a skill that needs to be continually honed and updated in response to emerging social research on the key motivators and shapers of workplace conduct as shared by EthicalSystems.org.

 

 

Please fill out the form below to get in touch with us and to start the discussion about your business ethics issues. You can also call us now on 0430 889 850 or email us directly at attracta@values.com.au.

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