Ethical Behavior In Leadership & Management
Ethics are a key topic among leaders, managers, and entrepreneurs. Ethics are also often misunderstood or not understood at all by many in these fields. It is important that we have a good grasp of ethics in order to reach a deep level of understanding in leadership and management. Ethics are more than a set of rules or guidelines of behavior, they are an outline of conduct. We must delve deep into the why of practicing ethical behavior in order to really unlock the level of relationships desired in order to lead efficiently.
What are Ethics?
Ethics are the standards of right and wrong that influence behavior, while ethical behavior is the behavior that is accepted as “right” as opposed to “wrong” according to those standards. I have retrieved this definition from “Management 9th Ed.” Written by Angelo Kinicki and Brian K. Williams. Right and wrong are not meant to be understood as subjective social interpretation, rather they are meant to be underlying principles known as common-sense to the culture and population. What we need to understand here is that ethics are standards that are understood from culture, and in order to practice them we first need to be versed in the culture that we are practicing them in. This is universally applicable so long as you are practicing leadership, management, or entrepreneurship in the United States, however, this still applies all around the world.
What is Being "Unethical"?
Behaving unethically refers to exhibiting behavior that is “wrong” as opposed to “right”. Once again we are using the culturally accepted moral definitions of “right” and “wrong” here. Theft is the most common example to use. We all know that it is considered “wrong” to steal, yet many people do it anyway. There are many reasons that employees steal from their employer, and every employee when deciding whether to do this has encountered an ethical dilemma. They recognize that they stand to personally benefit from the theft, however, that what they are doing is intrinsically and culturally “wrong”. Other common unethical behaviors include stealing company time, abusing co-workers or reports, or cheating in the workplace often to earn benefits that you otherwise would not receive.
We encounter dilemmas frequently in life and leadership. When we begin to enter the realm of management, leadership, and entrepreneurship we tend to encounter them a lot. Ethical dilemmas are situations where we must decide on whether to act in a way that benefits us or our corporation. We will frequently run into situations where we may have clear paths to benefits for ourselves, our company, or others that just aren’t “right”. The decision sounds simple, but when placed in these real-life situations, things may get hairy.
Most texts on management refer to four approaches to resolve ethical dilemmas. I will summarize them as Utilitarian, Individual, Moral-rights, and Justice approaches. The utilitarian approach is the strategy of deciding on what will cause the greatest good for the largest number of people. This is a common favorite and usually the one that an average person would turn to when attempting to act ethically and faced with an ethical dilemma. The individual approach is the process of solving an ethical dilemma by choosing the course of action that will result in the individual’s best outcome. This decision usually results in better outcomes for everyone if properly applied. The moral-rights approach respects morality in the decision making of solving the ethical dilemma and taps into the individual’s morals and standards guided by what they believe to be correct regarding the fundamental rights of human beings. The justice approach to solving ethical dilemmas refers to being guided by respect for impartial standards of fairness.
Ethics in Leadership
What this means for leaders of organizations is that we must be able to understand our culture and act accordingly. We will be constantly judged as leaders based on our decisions and courses of actions when we encounter ethical dilemmas. It may feel as if no one is watching and we could decide whichever route we wish without any consequence. If this is the way you are thinking, then you are wrong. Leaders especially are always under a lot of scrutiny. If no one else is paying attention, you can always bet that the ones that you lead are. Your team will be looking to you as a model and guide to their own behaviors, so when a member of your team takes notice that you are about to encounter or are currently encountering an ethical dilemma, their attention will shift to you and your behaviors.
If you are a leader of a team in an organization and you allow your team to witness you choose the unethical route out of an ethical dilemma, you are voluntarily shaping their own values regarding the team. That is, you can devalue your team by not navigating ethically through dilemmas at any given time. This is also true in situations and encounters outside of work that involve your team, be it an organizational team or even your family. So often leaders, or people in general, find themselves in unfavorable circumstances in life because of their teammates actions that are direct results of their own poorly navigated dilemmas in life where they acted unethically themselves. Take full advantage of this team building opportunity inside and outside of business by taking a self-inventory every time you encounter an ethical dilemma and ask yourself who is watching, and who are you influencing.
Self Preservation Through Ethics in Leadership
We can hold claim to our position as leaders by practicing ethical behavior. As stated above, our decisions influence others, especially in positions of leadership. People will continue to follow an ethical leader. An ethical leader will be a leader that the people want to follow. Our level of influence grows as others witness our ability to make “right” decisions in arenas other than work performance. The deeper we venture into morals and values, the deeper in impact on any team member witnessing the dilemma. Aside from this, we connect more deeply with ourselves and our leadership potential as we encounter and act ethically through management and ethical dilemmas encountered during management. Each encounter builds on the other and allows us to gain an ethical mentality that makes the next dilemma easier to navigate than the former.
Acting Ethically to Grow
Demonstrating ethical actions in front of others is important for any leader, however, it is specifically important if you are a leader that is searching for a higher leadership role. I speak a lot about promotions, because, no one is born a leader. I was a floor level factory laborer promoted into a leadership position. Some of us may have gone to school and discovered leadership there, however, this was not the case for me. I started out on a team at a job and became a leader long before a position of leadership. If you find yourself in this position and do want to see a positional level or title of leadership, demonstrating your knowledge and willingness to act ethically could dramatically improve your chances of seeing this come to fruition. Managers want to promote those of good ethical character. Sometimes you may get lucky and land a promotion on work performance alone, however, this is usually not the case. This is especially not the case in situations where there are many candidates applying for the same job. Ethics, morals, values, and character all play a huge part in the promotion process and in some circumstances far outweigh job performance.
Ethics in the Home
I think of my wife and children whom I love all very much and reflect on ethical dilemmas that they have witnessed me navigate. I think of the tough times and how I handled them and the impact that I had on them when I displayed ethical action that did not seem in our best interest. How could a child understand if they are not taught ethics? How does this make sense to such an elementary brain? Imagine if we weren’t taught morals, values, or cultural norms. What do you do when you encounter a bill that is truly yours, but you could escape from if you so choose, however, make the ethically sound decision and pay it anyway because it is your responsibility and your child asks why? Situations like these offer the perfect environment to begin to teach ethics to our children so that we can have a more ethically sound society. Practicing ethics far exceeds the reach of business, management, leadership, entrepreneurship, and work. Practicing ethics has an impact on the entire world and I believe it starts in our home.
The Take Away
If ethical behavior is a new concept to you, I suggest that you begin by looking for ethical dilemmas that you encounter in your day to day life. I suggest that you begin to think about cultural and society norms and think in terms of right and wrong. I don’t suggest that you pick a strategy to solve ethical dilemmas and only focus on applying that strategy to life, however, if you had to pick one or two, I would suggest to go with the Utilitarian approach, which nets the greatest good for the most people, or the Moral-rights approach, which yields the decision that respects the fundamental rights for human beings. If we start with these two we will end up with positive decisions that are easy to arrive at based on the simplistic way to deduce what is wrong. Ethical action is one of those things that just by paying attention you are going to see improvement and begin to view dilemmas in a way that will beg you to act accordingly. There is a lot of self-discovery here. You may be the type of person that encounters some resistance from yourself when you are attempting to make the ethical decision. If that is the case, you have discovered an area of self that you need to work on to improve your leadership ability and potential. Just remember that an ethical world is a good one, and we should all strive for good, because this will yield a positive place for our families to thrive in.