Ethical Leadership: Perceptions of “Different” Impact Our Behavior

“DIFFERENT”

How we think  as leaders directly impacts our behavior.  It compels us to act based on the value judgements we make. Today’s post focuses on how we perceive “different,”  how our perceptions change our leadership, and how our leadership changes the work environment in ways that may lead to unethical behavior.

Unfortunately, we don’t always use the word “different” to describe things and people and ideas that are new to us. We often use less friendly words that indicate that the person or idea is wrong, misguided or harmful. Let’s check our thinking about “different” for a moment, and consider how our perception impacts our behavior and our ethics.

If we are one of the leaders who thinks that “different” ideas and people are interesting/good/essential, then we will be open to new ideas and new information and will want to surround ourselves with people who represent different ways of thinking. We will see the value in differences of opinion. We will tolerate some level of chaos and see it as part of the natural process of getting great work done. Opportunities will be quickly recognized and acted on, leading to competitive advantage.

If we are a leader who thinks that “different” ideas and people are dangerous/bad/wrong, then we will be closed to new ideas and new information and will want to surround ourselves with people who think and act very much like we do. We will see differences of opinion as threatening the fabric of the organization. Our organization will begin to become obsolete as groupthink sets in. We will discourage new and different perspectives and will see them as blatant insubordination.  Employees will leave as they find they are not able to do their best work in the “copy me” culture. Missed opportunities and complications from employee resistance to “not being allowed to think for themselves” will take a toll on the profitability and viability of the business. Employees will be more likely to make unethical decisions in the restrained environment that does not allow for discussion of grey areas during ethical challenges.

Which type of leader engages employees? Inspires the best work? Is rewarded in your organization? Which type is more ethical?

Linda Fisher Thornton is Owner of Leading in Context LLC, providing Tools for Ethical Leadership in a Complex Connected Workplace.  She teaches “Strategic Thinking for Leaders” and “Leadership, Conflict Management and Group Dynamics” as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Continuing Studies.

About Linda Fisher Thornton
Author of 7 Lenses, Speaker, Bringing Out the Best in People and Organizations Through Proactive Ethical Leadership, CEO Leading in Context, 2014 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior, Adj. Assist. Prof. of Ethics and Leadership, UR SPCS

2 Responses to Ethical Leadership: Perceptions of “Different” Impact Our Behavior

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughtful response with the Leading in Context Blog readers! I especially liked your statement that the most effective leader is “a ‘systems thinking’ leader who helps cultivate organizational wisdom, rather than the mere formal aggregation of expertise.” Well said.

  2. Tabby says:

    You have asked, in your note on “Ethical Leadership”

    “Which type of leader engages employees? Inspires the best work? Is rewarded in your organization? Which type is more ethical?”

    I would say, a ‘systems thinking’ leader who helps cultivate organizational wisdom, rather than the mere formal aggregation of expertise.

    There’s an interesting model of learning in ‘systems thinking’ organizations that I came across called “Rhythms of Learning: Patterns That Bridge Individuals and Organizations” by David Cowan.

    Cowan develops a model for organizational learning based on concepts from the Native American medicine wheel. First, it is worth briefly describing the medicine wheel symbolized by a circle showing the four directions on a compass. The direction of movement is clockwise with learning beginning in the East that involves anticipation, direction, vision, and an expanded perspective.

    As you move around the circle from East to South, learners examine their new visionary ideas with attention to issues of action and implementation. The South is the place for curiosity and innocence where the learner closely examines details. The movement from the South to the West is the time to find the personal and social resolve to implement the vision. It is the time to accept the responsibility for the plan and figure out how it will fit with our lives, conviction and self-assurance. So in the West reflection is important along with letting go of any attachments formed earlier in the process.

    Moving from West to North is a making way for the new as old ideas die. It is a time for leadership and empathy for those who may need help as they journey along the medicine wheel path. The North is a time for integration and wisdom and sharing oneself with others so they may grow. Lastly, the movement from North to East involves an inner process of renewal and an awareness for the need to continue cycling around the wheel.

    When incorporating the medicine wheel concepts into organizational learning, Cowan advocates four new premises for learning.

    First, learning needs to be seen as part of every performance and every relationship within an organization. Organizational learning, therefore, becomes an everyday occurrence with everyone taking responsibility for keeping the organization on the path of learning.

    Second, he also believes we need to move from a linear view of learning to one that is circular or a spiral. This is vital due to our continually changing contexts. We also need to learn more about the process of learning. With this view relearning, reexamining, rethinking, play, exploration, alternative paths and areas become very important.

    Thirdly, Cowan calls for a movement from cross-sectional to longitudinal thinking. This position acknowledges the flows of learning where learning can occur on many levels and in different directions. For example, some employees can explore new ideas while others sustain the core identity of the company by maintaining consistency. Since learning occurs in relationships, flow helps us see them as continually changing so organizational structures need to change too. This leads to a growing emphasis on the value of diversity. Longitudinal thinking helps groups focus on harmony, balance, maturity and survival rather than immediate gratification.

    Lastly, our view of learning also needs to change from one that is compartmental to one that is integrative.

    To Cowan this means valuing wisdom rather than expertise. Expertise always operates within a narrow scope and is only useful when one knows the context. Wisdom becomes more important when operating in uncertain contexts. Wisdom extends knowledge so we choose the game that is played as well as the means, ends and values more intelligently.

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