Case Study: Think Before You Blame (the Culture May be the Cause)
October 13, 2010 1 Comment
When we are faced with a business problem that involves ethics, the easy way out is blame someone. That appears to remove the pressure of actually solving the problem. While we are busy finding someone to blame for ethical lapses we usually forget that organizational problems are complicated and rarely have one simple cause (or causer). Since organizations are systems, it would be wise to look for systemic causes when ethical problems happen. That way, we can improve the organization’s leadership in ways that will help to prevent problems in the future.
Let’s use a business leadership example to illustrate how culture impacts ethical behavior in organizational systems:
The Case of the Customer Service Manager Tampering With Data
Why did the Manager of Customer Service (a leader that people like and who has a good track record) tamper with report data? Why, indeed? Why would a manager tamper with data to make his department appear to be more responsive?
Consider these important facts:
- The Customer Service Manager’s boss told him to do whatever it took to make sure that his department was responsive to customers.
- The boss cut his Customer Service staff 15% this year and took away part of his budget without involving him in the process.
- The boss was too busy to see him when he stopped by talk about “a problem.”
- The boss fired someone last year without any discussion when her department’s numbers weren’t what he had asked for.
We need to ask ourselves:
What is it about the culture of this company that would lead an otherwise honest person to make an unethical decision?
Processing the Ethical Consequences
The Customer Service Manager had been told that he had to meet expectations. He wanted to find a way to do it that his boss would accept. He didn’t want to be blamed or fired, and he knew that he would be (given the boss’s history) if he didn’t make the numbers. He tried to reach out to the boss for help, but was ignored. He felt so cornered that he made the decision that altering the data would be better than an angry unwarranted firing.
The Link to Innovation and Open Communication
If leaders in your organization have done even some of the things listed above, then they may have created a need for their employees to seek a shortcut to give them the performance that they asked for.
If your culture doesn’t value open communication and employee support, employees have to come up with creative solutions on their own. If your culture doesn’t value innovation, though, those same employees would be punished for innovating their way through the problem. That type of culture leaves employees feeling like they have no other choices but to make decisions that bend ethics.
Questions to Consider
1. Do you think that the data tampering in this case has multiple causes that go beyond what the Customer Service Manager did wrong?
2. What are some signs that ineffective leadership in our culture may be encouraging unethical behavior?
3. How can we create a culture that encourages ethical leadership?
Linda Fisher Thornton is Owner of Leading in Context LLC, providing Tools for Ethical Leadership in a Complex Interconnected 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.