Are You An Ethical Leader?

Are You An Ethical Leader?

Are You An Ethical Leader?

By Mark Wager

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon the world” - Albert Camus 

Every Leader believes they are ethical but it’s worth asking yourself the question just how ethical are you? The answer may not be what you originally believe. A survey by the Institute of Business Ethics looked at 6,019 employees across eight countries and asked about their attitudes and perceptions of ethics in the workplace. It was found that one in three employees had witnessed misconduct in the workplace within the last year. People being treated badly/inappropriately was the most common misconduct followed by misreporting of hours and safety violations. This survey shows that there is a significant amount of unethical conduct happening in workplaces but it also showed that nearly half the number of people, 46% didn’t report or address the unethical conduct they witnessed.

Having poor ethics in a workplace presents many problems. Poor work cultures are created, bad habits are formed, poor productivity rises which reduces profits. This is a significant challenge facing Leaders, but are all Leaders ethical?

Everyone wants their leaders to be ethical, to know the difference between right and wrong and have the courage to make the right decision when necessary. Something else that people usually agree on is that they consider themselves ethical, but is this really the case? Let me present you with a scenario.

There’s a thought experiment invented by Philippa Foot in 1967 called the Trolly Experiment. In this hypothetical scenario you are onboard a trolley and it’s speeding on a track. As  it moves forward it’s heading towards five people who are on the track who will die if the trolley hits them but coming up is a fork on the track and at the fork you can pull a leaver which will divert the trolley into another direction but in the second direction there is one person on the track. The ethical dilemma you face is, do you allow five people to die or do you sacrifice one person to save five? 

When people are faced with this hypothetical scenario, the majority, around 90%, decide to pull the lever and sacrifice one in order to save five. It’s generally considered an easy decision to save the lives of five people compared to the life of one. Now just imagine if the scenario was a little bit different, and you actually knew the single person who is someone close to you and you cared for them and the five people on the other track where strangers. How would this influence your decision? 

When an emotional element is brought into the scenario the decision is not so easy and as a result people are less likely to decide to sacrifice the life of one in order to save five. Now let me explain the last scenario, the “footbridge scenario.” In this hypothetical scenario you are not on the trolley but you are watching from a footbridge above, you see the trolley heading towards the five people but on the footbridge you are standing next to a person and you know that if you push this person off the bridge their weight will stop the trolley, killing the person but saving five people - what do you do? 

Even though the situation with the “footbridge scenario” is the same as the “Trolly Experiment” do you chose to sacrifice one in order to save five? This scenario produced dramatically different results because with the footbridge scenario the majority of people, around 90% decided not to push the person of the bridge resulting in, sacrificing five in order to save one. The reality is that the more involvement we have, both emotionally and psychologically, the higher the level of personal responsibility and with more personal responsibility our ethics and our decisions create changes for the better or for the worse.

Proximity - emotional connection - personal responsibility 

We all believe we are good people and we want to make the right decision but what the above scenario shows is that we need to be aware of the factors that influence our decisions. The  proximity to the scenario, the level of emotional connection to the people involved and the amount of personal responsibility we need to have to alter the scenario. The closer these factors, the more our decisions are influenced and this is something that I see in companies when they try to implement change. 

Here’s a common scenario. The Senior Managers decide that change is needed, the organisational structure needs to change and these changes will result in redundancies. Due to the fact that there’s no proximity between the Senior Mangers and the staff it seems a simple decision. Some people have to leave in order for the company to survive.  The Middle Managers then get involved and they have more of an emotional connection so the decision becomes more difficult and finally the lower level Managers get involved and they have to actually implement the decision and they feel the most personal responsibility and as a result either disagree or are at least highly uncomfortable with the decision. 

Lose your emotions but not your humanity 

There’s no mathematical formula or quick solution I can give you which will make you an ethical Leader because being ethical is about making the right decision, the decision that you know deep down is the right one and whether you can make this decision depends on your upbringing, your values, your beliefs which I can’t help you with but what I can help you with is recognising what will influence your decision. You need to lose your emotions but not your humanity, by that I mean you need to be aware that your emotions are influenced by your situation. There's a danger of being too close as well as being too far removed. Your emotions will be influenced by your emotional connection, if someone you know or like does something wrong. It's difficult to address this as opposed to it being done by a stranger and finally your personal responsibility will influence your emotions. A decision seems easy until you have to make that decision yourself.

Many people know the difference between right and wrong. As the business study showed about half the people see unethical behaviour in the workplace. They know what’s right and what’s wrong but actually doing something about it requires something else . It requires courage and courage is what all leaders require. To be an ethical leader you need to have the courage to do what’s right and not what is easy because it’s not enough to be good we have to have the courage to do good things.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Attributed to Edmund Burke, included by John F Kennedy in a speech in 1961.

About the Author

Mark Wager is a Leadership Coach with over thirty years of managerial experience across a range of industries. A former Broker Sales Manager with a London Finance House and a National Manager for the Ministry of Justice Mark specialises in working with Leaders helping them overcome the barriers, both technical and mental standing between themselves and success.

A strong believer in taking complex leadership & psychological theories and making them accessible to people regardless of their background, education or industry Mark has helped develop Leaders from some of New Zealand’s leading organisations such as Fisher & Paykel, Weta FX, Heartland Bank, NZRL, NZ Netball, NZ Soccer, NZ Basketball, Amnesty Int, Barnardos, Oxfam, Red Cross and many more.

Mark has limited availability for new clients so If you are serious about becoming more successful then contact Mark today.

Posted: Thursday 13 April 2023

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