Ethical leadership relies heavily on an individual’s personal judgment. It needs to be understood that the moral or ethical dilemmas that everyone experiences in the work environment are part of working life and need to be addressed in a direct and open way. While most firms, companies, working groups have some cultural and structural controls and balances, including statements of values, social responsibility guidelines, and even whistle-blower functions, leaders must also keep in mind the psychological conditions that force people – including themselves – to cross ethical boundaries.
The issue of crossing the boundaries of ethical behavior in business has become commonplace, for those who are interested in it. In rare situations, ethics becomes controversial when the question of “good business” and “good business according to the principles of ethics” arises. Science has established three psychological dynamics that lead to the crossing of ethical boundaries. First, there is omnipotence (the power we attribute to God): when someone feels so great in relation to others and is empowered to believe that the rules of decency do not apply to him/her. Second, we have a cultural numbness: when others play and gradually begin to accept and embody deviant norms. Finally, we see justified neglect: when people don’t talk about ethical violations because they think about immediate rewards, like staying in good positions and power.
Ethical leadership relies heavily on an individual’s personal judgment. It needs to be understood that the moral or ethical dilemmas that everyone experiences in the work environment are part of working life and need to be addressed in a direct and open way. While most firms, companies, working groups have some cultural and structural controls and balances, including statements of values, social responsibility guidelines, and even whistleblower functions, leaders must also keep in mind the psychological conditions that force people – including themselves – to cross ethical boundaries.
Let’s give one example.
“One pleasant evening after the business meeting, a team of executives arrives at a famous local restaurant. The group is looking forward to a joint dinner, but the CEO is not happy with the table and demands a change. “This is not the table I usually book,” he says. The young waiter quickly finds a manager who explains to him that there are no vacant tables. The group tries to continue their socializing over dinner, but the CEO interrupts again. “Am I this the only that find this irritated?” Why are these construction works happening today? “, Demanding an answer. The waiter tries to explain, but without success. “This place really needs to change its way of working,” the CEO replies. The air around the table becomes tense. After the waiter leaves, someone jokes waiters (un)ability. For a moment it seemed that CEO is satisfied about that joke, which corresponds to his own home wit. The group begins to laugh.
If you were present at the dinner, would you notify the executive Director that do not approve of his language of communication and behavior? Would you try to give a better example? Or would you be silent?
This scene encompasses three psychological dynamics that lead to the crossing of ethical boundaries. dimension when others accept these deviant norms, in this case the tacit approval of the main person’s behavior at the meeting, and in the end we see the third justifiably ignored because the present interlocutors cared to be in good relations with the “main”.
We can see the same dynamics in different examples of large corporations but also small ones: allegations of corruption in Nissan, allegations of sexual harassment in the media sector, privacy breaches on Facebook, money laundering in the financial sector and the role of pharmaceuticals in the opioid crisis. the world.
While it is difficult, if not impossible, to find evidence that leaders, generally with age, are becoming less ethical, there are more and more examples.
But how do you know that you or your team are on the path of ethical failure? Here’s more on how to recognize omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect within yourself and your team, and a few tips on fighting any dynamic:
Many moral failings can be followed by that feeling of being invincible, untouchable, and hyper-capable, which can energize and create a sense of elation. For omnipotent leaders, rules and norms are for everyone but them. Crossing the border seems less like an offense and more like what is owed to them. They consider that they have the right to skip or cross out the lines. In the above example of dinner it is no coincidence that the right and condescending behavior of the CEO comes after a busy day where the potential planning of the next big moves is stated.
This trait does not always have to be all bad. Sometimes the haste you achieve with courageous action is needed to progress or take a real step forward. But the more you climb the ladder of successful people / companies, the more commitment it can become. This is especially true if fewer and fewer people around you are willing and able to keep you on the ground. If no one says no to you, you have a problem. One way to assess whether you have reached the “peak of omnipotence” is to welcome your decisions with applause, respect, and silence. The psychological counterbalance of omnipotence possesses your flaws. It is a mature ability to look in the mirror and recognize that you are not above everything. Especially if you are in a leading position, assume that you have weaknesses and think about them regularly. Sometimes you will need help with this. The executives with the best performance we see have close colleagues, friends, coaches, or mentors who dare to tell them the truth about their performance and judgment. You should nurture a similar group of trusted people who will tell you the truth even when it is embarrassing. In addition, try to encourage a “commitment to disagreement” among your key team.
No matter how principled you are, you need to understand that over time, the directions of your moral compass will shift toward the culture of your organization or team.
On the example of police and military units that infiltrate their persons into criminal groups, we can find examples of how cultural numbness forces leaders to cross borders. It usually starts subtly. Cops need to get to know a new culture and infiltrate it. They have to fit in using the language of the environment, behaving according to their code and dressing to fit. But in doing so, they risk going too far – mimicking the culture of gang members who want to stop and get caught up in their group value system. The same kind of “moral numbness” happens in companies, not overnight, but gradually. Psychologically, you make a compromise between fitting into the culture and staying true to what you value. Initially, cultural numbness can take the form of ironic distance or frustrated resignation when there is a mismatch between the two, or between the ideals your company advocates and what you see demonstrated and rewarded. But the mind needs a solution. So, over time, you stop noticing when offensive language becomes the norm or you start behaving in a way you would never expect to be a part of your repertoire.
Leaders who have crossed the line of cultural numbness never describe this as a clear choice on that path, but as wandering the muddy path, where they have lost track of what is good and what is not. They describe a process in which they become numb to the language and behavior of others and then to their own and lose their sense of objectivity. Basically, their warning bells just stopped ringing.
So start looking for signs of moral captivity: those brief moments in which you do not recognize yourself and any other indications that you are subjecting your personal organization / group / firm to the deviant norms of the collective. Another regular check you can use involves asking if you would be comfortable telling a reporter or judge about what is going on around you and with you. At the same time, in such situations you cannot always trust yourself. As with omnipotence, it can help you gain the perspective of an outsider, contact a trusted friend or family member, who may be able to detect changes in you that you cannot see.
The human mind is adept at justifying minor intrusions when it comes to tangible reward – and when the risk of being caught is small.
One example of justified neglect. “On the production line of the pharmaceutical company, the laboratory assistant forgot to remove all her make-up. Mascara grains accidentally fall into a container of medicine large enough to serve medium-sized soil for a year. In short, the tiny impurity pulls a thin, yellowish trace of paint, but then disappears, it is impossible to detect. The medicine is life-saving and very valuable, with only a small trace of make-up, which is probably harmless. Now, if you knew about this incident, would you report it? If you were a manager who was quietly asked what to do, would you destroy that batch of life-saving medicine? Would you change your mind knowing that patients could suffer or even die from severe production delays? Would your production budget and weak financial situation of your company influence your decision? Would you pass the problem on to your superiors knowing that those with a higher share of the outcome could close their eyes to the incident?
Many leaders have been faced with the choice of whether to receive an award or make a good decision. The slippery slope begins just when you start streamlining the store and you say to yourself and others, “This is an extraordinary situation” or “We have to break the rules a little bit to do things here” or “We’re here to make money, not to do charity work.” . ”
These initial sliding missteps increase in cascades, and turn into habits that you know are bad, but which, given the circumstances, begin to feel justified and even acceptable, and eventually become part of your moral fabric. It is difficult to determine exactly when an important line is crossed, but it is much easier to correct the course at the very beginning of this journey than when you are gliding at full speed from what is correct.
Remember that power corrodes more than it corrupts, often as a result of clever justifications for ethical neglect. You can combat this psychological dynamic by creating formal and social contracts that oblige you and your colleagues to do the right thing; rewarding ethical behavior; and defining and sharing your boundaries. The latter could be as simple as making a list of things you won’t do for profit or pleasure, keeping it in a convenient place for regular reading, and occasionally showing it to your team as a reminder. Establishing quality standards that will be truly followed and respected, encouraging ethical behavior by one’s own example and the like.
The moral or ethical dilemmas you experience can make you feel lonely or taboo – struggles you don’t want to inform your colleagues / employees about. Sometimes you can feel embarrassed and not admit that you feel torn or insecure when you need to make a decision on how to move on and which decision to make, which is the right one. But you have to admit that it is a part of working life and that it needs to be addressed in a direct and open way.