What would you do if you found a colleague’s behaviour unacceptable, even unethical? Most of us believe we will speak up; however, research shows we often fail to act on our ethical intent. The result is moral muteness, the gap between our ethical ambitions and behaviour.  Such a personal values gap emerges when organisational members experience their workplaces as unsafe places to raise concerns. It is often the root cause of employees’ cynicism around leaders’ authenticity in upholding espoused organisational values.

Ethics research shows that when employees hear their leaders discuss ethical challenges and role model ethical behaviour, they too are predisposed to ethical accountability. Where indifference is perceived, employees, in turn, assume they can ignore ethical accountability.

The social phenomenon of ‘moral muteness’ emerges at work when leaders fail to speak to the ethical challenges and values tensions that often accompany the pursuit of results. Culture translates in language, and choice of language signals what is important.  An organisation’s language that amplifies economic or political imperatives and fails to mention the accompanying ethical challenges or tensions with espoused values effectively silences consideration of the day to day ethical dimension of workplace decisions. Moral muteness flourishes where leaders fail to make ethical considerations part of everyday conversations. To safeguard against it, leaders need to take purposeful action to manage cultural pressures.  Organisational culture is dynamic, requiring leaders to regularly measure and adjust systems and processes to ensure a speak up culture emerges that can protect employees from harm and organisations from reputational damage.

Moral muteness flourishes from the Boardroom to the post room, with its practitioners oblivious to the inherent risks this creates.  Leaders’ personal reputations have never been more vulnerable to workplace pressures than in today’s low trust hyper-connected world.  The backlash against leaders found wanting is swift and fatal, as recently seen in the departures of AMP’s chairman David Murray; Westpac’s ex CEO Brian Hartzer, Rio Tinto’s departing executive team, and previous CEOs of QBE.

Recognising the sources of our moral muteness

Protecting organisational cultures and personal reputations from ethical outages means forewarning ourselves of the risks and ethical challenges to be addressed.  We now have extensive “known risks” that need to be offset with appropriate organisational systems.  A well-documented root cause of risk and unethical behaviour is the pressure of unrealistic goals, timetables, and targets on employees; another is our predisposition to loyalty influencing us to make emotional rather than rational decisions. Research shows that loyalty to managers’ or company survival can push organisational members into unethical practices. These actions are then justified because there was no personal gain. Employees need to be forewarned about the dangers of such rationalisations and how these can lead them into unethical and even illegal practices.  All organisational members need learning opportunities designed to raise personal awareness of the ethical risks generated by their workplace dynamics. Promoting a richer understanding of the individual cognitive biases, rationalisations, and contextual pressures characterising modern workplaces enables organisational leaders to design systems that better anticipate and remove these hidden barriers to ethical behaviour. Authentic workplace ethics skills training involves helping organisational members better understand themselves and their biases and how organisational culture can shape their decision-making frameworks.  The old maxim ‘If you don’t know what you stand for, chances are you will fall for anything’ is ringing loudly in today’s cancel culture.

Awareness-raising is essential to behaviour change, as much of our human behaviour is driven by contextual cues out of our conscious awareness. Ethical leadership now involves drawing on behaviour science insights to design systems and processes that make it easier for employees to act ethically and offsets moral muteness.  Initiatives such as inviting employees at every level to review and challenge prevailing organisational mindsets and assumptions lays the groundwork for meaningful behaviour change. Raising awareness of the more than 100 biases and short cuts that can waylay our best intentions will also better prepare individuals for the ethical challenges they face.  Designing organisational policies and processes that are fit for purpose for specific areas of the organisation rather than issuing one-size-fits-all protocols makes compliance more manageable.

Risks are known and can be eliminated using behaviour science insights

Behaviour science is showcasing evidence-based research into what people do – or don’t do – when confronted with ethical issues as well as why they do what they do.  One of the significant insights from behaviour science is that we can be different in different contexts.  While ethical in some contexts, we can behave unethically- and remain oblivious to our inappropriate behaviour – in other contexts.  Our self-servicing bias helps us evade personal responsibility while blaming others when things go wrong and it enables us to take credit for others’ work when it is to our advantage.

A “conformity bias” predisposes us to change our opinions to conform to our group and our ‘affinity bias reinforces this.’  Affinity bias operates where individuals strongly identify with a group. Both biases add to the pressure of group loyalty, and all three influences create a context where moral muteness and group think prevails.

The science tells us that organisational members behave ethically when:

  • Respected leaders talk about the value of ethical behaviour
  • When employees find themselves in organisations that value ethical behaviour
  • When organisational members are made aware of the benefits to others of their ethical behaviour.

Responding to higher ethical accountabilities requires Boards to purposely choose CEOs capable of designing organisational cultures that enable their members to have agency and are supported by organisational systems that promote organisational learning around ongoing systems and policy failures.

We can all expect to be challenged to find our voice, either to avoid harm or to protect our integrity.  Therefore, it is within everyone’s interest to recognise the origins of moral muteness in organisations and work together to break this silence.

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