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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