The degree of micromanagement characterising most Australian workplaces suffocates relationships of trust. Working from home (WFH) – ‘the new normal’- presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to recalibrate and establish a workable degree of trust between managers and employees. It begins when leaders and their enablers – external consultants, HR managers, in-house lawyers and risk managers – move away from the current tick a box ethics initiatives.  This approach didn’t work in the past, and it will not work in the future.  The loudest message in any organisation is what leaders do.

Ethical leaders begin by asking themselves some essential ethical questions – am I impacting positively or negatively on the people I lead? Are my decisions personally motivated or based on what’s right for the organisation?  Am I aware of my prejudices and bias undermining my integrity? Have I invested time in getting to know the strengths of each employee, so I can help them be their best at work?  Do I encourage my people to learn from mistakes, or do I punish them? Have I the interpersonal skills to manage group dynamics and nurture group harmony?  Ethical accountability is not easy, but answering these questions will put you on the right path.

The old comfortable management paradigm of command and control is no longer suitable in a Covid-19 world where ignoring the social and psychological factors impacting employees is no longer acceptable to consumers or public opinion.

Transactional or conventional management uses command and control management styles with risk and reward functions as key motivators rather than appeals to the fundamentally social nature of individuals. Transformational managers adopt a more egalitarian approach focusing on empowering employees and tapping into deeper social needs and psychological motivations.  It shifts the manager’s focus from overseeing employee output to orchestrating the kinds of inputs that will enable them to thrive and enhance their ability to deliver desired outputs.

The inability of organisations to eliminate conduct risk is directly attributable to leaders’ unwillingness to recognise the unconscious patterns of poor, and unethical behaviour, flourishing in workplaces.  Reluctance to hear issues of concern, which inside the organisation revolve around the absence of procedural justice, stymies employee engagement which, science tells us, correlates with employee perceptions of fairness.  It impedes resilience which, science again tells us, is linked to engagement. It hinders innovation as employees are reluctant to expose themselves to trial and failure.

When we recognise organisations are a collection of social relationships, we can begin to appreciate the importance of nurturing shared perceptions, attitudes and decision-making models as a prelude to shared behaviour standards.

To date, organisations have paid scant attention to the interdependence between employee thinking and the organisational context or culture emerging. This interdependence is shaping the social dynamics that play out at work, enabling conduct risk to thrive.

To change thinking, we need to surface prevailing mindsets and, to change context, we need to surface the informal organisational practices that become the institutional roadblocks to trust.  Chief amongst these is the absence of authentic leadership commitment to promoting a speak-up culture enabling the organisation to learn from root cause analysis of where and when its systems are failing.

Trust emerges when people feel safe because they experience consistency between what the organisation says it values and how managers treat them. It’s the hallmark of an ethical culture. Without trust, WFH becomes a logistical challenge, and employee well-being ‘a luxury’ managers continue to believe they cannot afford.

At this moment, its time to step up to ethical leadership and beyond leadership as usual.

Now is the time to ensure you have the sort of managers in place to realise the human potential dormant in your organisation. Ethical skills are complex, and would-be leaders need to invest time in crafting these skills.  Now is the time to allocate that time.

While none of us is perfect, we can hone the skills necessary to catch ourselves when we begin to slide into unethical patterns of managing and leading.  Acquiring ethical leadership skills will enable your organisation to emerge stronger from this crisis with the inbuilt resilience to address the inevitable challenges our post-COVID-19 world will bring.


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