Ethics is Contagious

© 2014 Leading in Context LLCBy Linda Fisher Thornton

I must admit that I can’t take the credit for coming up with the catchy title of this post. A group of attendees at a recent keynote I delivered came up with it as a way to describe what they had learned. And it makes perfect sense.

Ethics is catching, and leaders set the tone for the ethics of the organization. What would happen if everyone in the organization followed our lead? Would the organization be more or less ethical?  What kind of ethics are people catching as they work in our organization?

10 Reasons Why Ethics is Contagious:

  1.  We are social creatures.
  2.  People tend to “follow the leader.”
  3.  If their leader is unethical, people may be less likely to report ethical problems.
  4.  In unethical cultures, people who speak up may be punished, which further entrenches the unethical culture.
  5.  When people fail to report ethical problems, the problems may increase and become standard practice.
  6.  In unethical cultures, people who do unethical things may be promoted or rewarded in other ways.
  7.  If their leader is ethical, people may be more likely to report ethical problems.
  8.  In a positive ethical culture, people who speak up may be rewarded, which further entrenches the ethical culture.
  9.  The choices we repeat and reward become the patterns of acceptable behavior in our culture. 
  10.  Whichever case of ethics is spreading in our organizations gains momentum over time. In unethical cultures, the momentum is toward compromising ethics. In ethical cultures, the momentum is toward acting based on ethical values.

Which direction are we leading the organization? Organizational ethics can easily can go either way. Since ethics is so contagious, we need to be sure that we help people catch a positive case of it.

 Linda Fisher Thornton is an author, speaker, consultant and adjunct faculty member who helps  organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership™. Her new book is 7 Lenses.


5 Ways CEOs Can Build an Ethical Culture

Leading in Context BlogBy Linda Fisher Thornton

CEOs are in a unique position to make ethics a priority through their everyday actions, but simply modeling ethics isn’t nearly enough. Here is a starting list of 5 actions CEOs can take that move organizations toward an ethical culture, besides telling people how important ethics is and demonstrating it in everyday behavior and choices.

5 Ways CEOs Can Build an Ethical Culture

1. Expect respectful, ethical behavior, and quickly correct behavior that doesn’t measure up

2. Make it safe for people to talk about the ethical grey areas they encounter in their work 

3. Talk about the organization’s values, ethics expectations and industry ethics codes 

4.  Give people the opportunity to practice making good ethical decisions

5. Talk openly about the ethical decisions you are making, and why they are so important

Why is proactively making ethics a priority so critical? CEOs protect the character of their organizations. They set the example that others follow.  They have the responsibility for creating a ripple of ethical behavior, choices, and conversations throughout their organizations.

Forward-thinking CEOs embrace this responsibility to protect the character of the organizations. When they talk openly about their own efforts to make ethical decisions, they also magnify that learning on an organizational scale.

7 Lenses Book

About Linda Fisher Thornton

As CEO of Leading in Context, Linda Fisher Thornton helps forward-thinking leaders and organizations bring out their best by developing ethical leaders and aligning ethical leadership performance systems. In 2013, Linda was named one of the Global Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. Her new book is 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership.

Leading in Context is a leader in providing clear tools for businesses of all sizes for implementing “ethical leadership future.”   For more information, see the LeadinginContext Manifesto, a statement of belief about ethical leadership that is behind a movement toward bringing out the best in people, organizations and communities.

Top 10 Benefits of Working For an Ethical Leader

Benefits of Working For an Ethical Leader

By Linda Fisher Thornton

When people change jobs, how often do you think it is because of poor leadership? Job seekers look for places to work where they can find meaning and add value. It takes more than a paycheck to keep them engaged in their work and bringing their full potential to it.

In my experience, ethical leaders are much easier to work for. They have a certain way of making work fun, and keeping us challenged. They care what happens to us. They think long-term and support our learning and growth.

What are the top 10 benefits of working for an ethical leader? Here is my starter list. What would you add?

  1. They provide a low-stress work environment (even if it’s really busy)
  2. They listen well
  3. They support and encourage
  4. They use open and honest communication
  5. You know that you can count on them to honor their word
  6. They treat you with respect
  7. You can ask them any question (without feeling stupid)
  8. The work is meaningful
  9. You always feel valued and appreciated
  10. Their companies perform better (job security)

Anyone who has had the opportunity to work for an ethical leader will smile just remembering the experience.

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO of Leading in Context LLC, a leadership development consulting firm in Richmond, Virginia. Linda was named one of the 2013 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America-Trust Around the World.

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC. All rights reserved.

Building an Ethical Leadership Culture (Webcast)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

How Does Ethical Leadership Impact “Brand?”

Our “brand” is determined in part by our ethical leadership choices. These connected trends increase what is expected of us, and make it important for us to manage ethical leadership carefully:

  • In a socially connected world, our leadership is more visible
  • Citizen journalism means that everyone has a voice (and may speak out about their experience with our brand)
  • Employees are seeking out ethical organizations and agencies where they can do their best work
  • Organizations and agencies are judged based on the ethics of the entire supply chain
  • There is a higher expectation for ethical behavior and more pressure on leaders to lead responsibly

How Can We Develop Ethical Leaders Who Will Build an Ethical Brand? 

I was recently invited to co-present an ASTD Public Manager Webcast “Developing Ethical Leaders and an Ethical Government Brand” with John Umana.  While the Webcast which aired on March 19, 2013 was customized for government HR and Training leaders, the content is applicable across industries. ASTD has now posted the recorded webcast and made it available to the public.

The Webcast includes:


  • Three very different perspectives on ethical leadership
  • Specific strategies for developing ethical leaders and an ethical brand
  • Managing ethical leadership as a performance system rather than a program
  • Understanding many connected aspects of building an ethical culture

Viewing the Webcast

This Webcast will help C-Suite leaders and HR/Training professionals discover the answers to these questions:

  1. What exactly is ethical leadership?
  2. How does an organization’s ethical leadership impact its brand?
  3. How is moral development related to ethical leadership?
  4. How should ethical leadership training be connected to the performance management system?
  5. What can we do to build an ethical culture?

To learn more about developing ethical leaders, see the complete ASTD Webcast Developing Ethical Leader and an Ethical Government Brand at

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO of Leading in Context LLC, a leadership development consulting firm helping business leaders lead responsibly in a complex world.  Linda was recently named one of the 2013 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America.

How to Use the Leading in Context® Website

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC. All rights reserved.

Should Trust Be Freely Offered or Conditionally Earned?

By Linda Fisher Thornton


Should We Trust Right Away (or Wait for People to Show That They Can be Trusted)?

When we meet someone new, should we trust them right away? Should we assume that they are trustworthy and give them the benefit of the doubt, or should we hold back until we are sure that they are worthy of our trust?

Each of these approaches has a powerful impact on the trust level within our organization. One has a powerful positive effect and the other has a powerful negative effect. Let’s explore the pitfalls of waiting for others to earn our trust, and the benefits of extending trust freely.

Pitfalls of Waiting for Others to Earn Our Trust

We erode trust by waiting for others to earn our trust. If we meet someone new and think “They have to earn my trust,” then we are intentionally withholding trust from them. We are automatically assuming the worst about their intentions and their level of trustworthiness.

This “wait and see” way of thinking about trust can lead to a low trust culture in several ways.

  1. If we are wait for someone to be trustworthy (and assume that they won’t be), our assumption will change how we treat them. Think about how we might treat someone we think is untrustworthy. Will we be eager to share ideas, offer support and collaborate?
  2. If we are waiting for someone to prove that they are trustworthy before we trust them, how will they be able to tell that we are trustworthy? If we don’t use behaviors that extend trust, how can we expect them to trust us enough to extend trust?
  3. If each one of us is waiting to see if the other will earn trust, we will quickly descend into a stalemate, with neither one extending trust. It will be very difficult for us to work together successfully while stuck in this stalemate. We may even look for examples of the other person’s untrustworthiness (examples that  prove that we were right about them) and miss the positive things that they do.

Benefits of Extending Trust

We can build trust by assuming that people will be trustworthy. If we meet someone new and choose to trust them right away, we are automatically assuming the best about their intentions and their level of trustworthiness.

This type of “assuming positive intent” can lead to a high trust culture in several ways.

  1. If we expect someone to be trustworthy (and assume that they will be), our assumption will change how we treat them. Think about how we might treat someone we think is trustworthy. We will be eager to share ideas, offer support and collaborate.
  2. If we are not waiting for someone to prove that they are trustworthy before we trust them, we can demonstrate that we are trustworthy by extending trust to them. If we use behaviors that extend trust, we can expect them to more quickly trust us enough to extend trust in return.
  3. When one person extends trust, and the other reciprocates, it is easier to work together successfully. We may even look for examples of the other person’s trustworthiness (examples that  prove that we were right about them) and overlook the small negative things that they do.

Trust is Relational – It Takes Two

So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Extending trust or earning trust?

Trust in the workplace works best if we give people the benefit of the doubt. We must reach out and extend trust in order to receive it.

Stephen M. R. Covey says it well in his book The Speed of Trust:

“Trust is reciprocal – in other words, the more you trust others, the more you, yourself are trusted in return.”

Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything

When we withhold trust as a general rule (for no good reason), we are eroding trust.   When we assume the best and extend trust (for no good reason), we are building trust.  

Sometimes people will disappoint us when we extend trust. Most of the time, though, people will delight us with how well they do when we expect the best from them.

Related Posts:

5 Unethical Phrases: Low Trust

Trustworthy Business Behavior

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO/Owner of Leading in Context LLC, a leadership development consulting firm helping business leaders lead responsibly in a complex world. She is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

How to Use the Leading in Context® Website

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC. All rights reserved.

How Not to Lead Through Conflict

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Why We Need Conflict

Why do we tend to think that conflict is something negative, something that we must prevent and avoid?  Unhealthy conflict can tear a team apart, but healthy disagreement is necessary for responsible business.

This post explores what can happen when we discourage respectful disagreements. As you read each scenario, imagine the ethical implications.

Squelching Important Input

Experienced leaders have learned that too little conflict in meetings is a warning sign that not all of the important points are being heard.

In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott describes “The Corporate Nod” as a situation where it’s “unnaturally quiet” and “people don’t say what they are really thinking.” She describes highly skilled, responsible employees helplessly nodding in agreement as the leader demands their support for a project that they have real concerns about.

What can happen when we discourage speaking up? Aren’t we taking a huge risk that we will make an unethical decision? What if our team members see the problem and we don’t, and what if we don’t listen to them?

Killing Employe Engagement

People want to be engaged in meaningful work. It brings out their best. And there is another important benefit of employee engagement – “Engaged employees reduce ethics risk” according to The Ethics Resource Center and the Hay Group in their Supplemental Research Brief, 2009 National Business Ethics Survey: Employee Engagement.

When we squelch input from employees, and they feel strongly about issues they cannot weigh in on, we will lose their engagement in their work. Disengaged employees go through the motions of getting their work done, but feel undervalued, underutilized and unappreciated.

What can happen when people are not listened to, and they disengage from their work? Will they be as motivated to protect your company’s reputation? Will they report problems? Will they make ethical decisions or take the easier, less ethical path?

Allowing Personal Attacks

Mark Gerzon, in his book, Leading Through Conflict, says that “In many settings, debate is disintegrating into little more than verbal brawling in coats and ties.” This kind of conflict is damaging to companies. It leads to a toxic workplace, where it is hard to get work done and employees do not feel safe.

What can happen when we allow employees to personally attack each other? When we allow personal attacks, we are also allowing disrespect. When we allow disrespect, we send a message that “anything goes” in making a point. When we send the message that “anything goes in making a point” aren’t we encouraging unethical behavior? How much of a stretch is it  from verbally attacking a coworker to other unethical interpersonal behaviors like bullying?

Leading through conflict does not mean squelching important input, killing employee engagement or allowing personal attacks. Instead, it involves:

  • clear ground rules
  • an openness to learning
  • a respect for differences
  • a commitment to listen even when it’s bad news
  • giving up the need to be  “right” and being willing to listen to other points of view
  • a focus on collaboration
  • accountability for respectful behavior

Was your last meeting too quiet? It’s worth taking the extra time to be sure that people are heard. Encourage everyone to participate so that you can get the benefit of their experience. Fostering open communication, even when there’s bad news, is part of building an ethical culture.

About The Author: Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO/Owner of Leading in Context, a leadership development firm providing leadership consulting and learning publications that address complex ethical issues. She is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Current Leading in Context® Publications:

“Ethical Implications of How Leaders Perceive ‘Different’”  Training Module
“Ethical Interpersonal Behavior”  Graphic
“The Evolving Leadership Context: Respectful Workplaces”  Video
Testimonials - Learn about the Leading in Context difference from satisfied customers, readers and fans!

Leading For Ethical Performance

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Discouraging Unethical Leadership 

One of the most important responsibilities of the senior leadership team is to discourage unethical behavior and build an ethical culture. Senior leaders need to work together as a team to create an organization where ethical leadership is rewarded and unethical leadership is quickly corrected.

Modeling Ethical Behavior 

To build an ethical company, every senior leader needs to model the ethical leadership behavior that is expected, and promote ongoing conversations about how to lead ethically.

Leading Organizational Ethics

Beyond modeling expected ethical behavior, each senior leader also leads the ethical aspects of their role for the organization as a whole. For example, the Chief Human Resource Officer also oversees the ethical performance management system, and the The Chief Learning Officer works to build the organization’s ethical understanding and ethical competence.

To build an ethical organization over time, Chief Learning Officers can work with leaders throughout the organization to build ethical competence in areas that support effective communication and leadership. Building ethical competence and having an ongoing dialogue about ethical leadership will make it easier to identify and correct unethical behavior (think about the headlines and lessons learned as you review this list that can get you started):

• Employees who ask tough questions of leaders are praised, not punished or ignored.

• Leaders are evaluated on how they communicate and lead, not just on their bottom line results.

• Employees are screened for ethical behavior before they are hired.

• Performance problems are corrected quickly, so that they are not given time to be considered acceptable  by others.

• Recognition is given to leaders who achieve financial goals ethically, while engaging employees and using responsible leadership (not to leaders who achieve results at the expense of employees, customers, or organizational values).

Linda Fisher Thornton, Ethical Leadership Training: Why is it So Hard to get it Right?, Training and Development Journal, Best of Leadership Development 2009

Individual Effort, Collaborative Effort

Leading for ethical performance requires a concerted effort from each member of the senior leadership team and a collaborative, integrated approach at the team level.

Leading for ethical performance requires:

  • aligning performance management around clear ethical expectations for behavior
  • hiring for ethical performance
  • modeling ethical leadership expectations at all leadership levels
  • requiring that those expectations are met every time, and
  • developing ethical leaders using ongoing dialogue and training

Building an Ethical Culture

By leading for ethical performance, senior leaders are also creating a work culture where people work well together as a team.

“Our work indicates that not only do leaders have to be moral individuals, but also have to go one step further and actively model ethical behaviors and use reward and punishment systems to influence followers’ behaviors. Thus, companies that can hire and/or train ethical leaders are more likely to create ethical and interpersonally harmonious work environments.”

Mayer, Acuino, Greenbaum & Kuenzi, Who Displays Ethical Leadership and Why Does it Matter? , Academy of Management Journal 2012, online at

Related Article:

Ethical Leadership Culture: The Case of The Dissenting Senior Leader, Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog, January 26, 2011


Linda Fisher Thornton is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies. She is also CEO/Owner of Leading in Context LLC, a consulting firm helping business leaders lead responsibly in a complex world.  

A Guide to Finding What You Need: How to Use the Leading in Context® Website

You are invited to access the full benefits that Leading in Context provides to customers and subscribers:

  • Access selected publications via Slideshare
  • Develop ethical leaders using materials purchased from the  Store
  • Participate via twitter @leadingincontxt
  • Connect via the Leading in Context Facebook Page
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  • Contact Linda Fisher Thornton about your consulting, custom design, group facilitation, research or writing projects at

© 2012, Leading in Context LLC. All rights reserved.

“Respectful Workplaces” Video

New Video Explains the Importance of Respect in the Workplace

Today’s post features a video for leaders that is currently available at no cost in an effort to educate leaders about the importance of building respectful workplaces.

And Highlights Recent Research About Ethical Leadership 

“The Evolving Leadership Context: Respectful Workplaces”  is a 5-minute leadership training video that ” explains how the latest research raises the stakes for leaders and changes how we think about respect in the workplace.”

Just released on November 4, 2011, the video is a simple one with a powerful message. Here are excerpts from the November 4 Press Release:

“The Evolving Leadership Context: Respectful Workplaces” Video Released

Richmond, Virginia—November 4, 2011  New Video Illustrates the Importance of “Respectful Workplace Behavior”

As a companion to the Graphic “Ethical Interpersonal Behavior” Leading in Context LLC has released a new leadership training video that explains how the latest research raises the stakes for leaders and changes how we think about respect in the workplace.

The video walks leaders through how the context for leadership is changing and what we now know from  research about  the importance of building a respectful workplace. Human Resource Managers, Chief Learning Officers and CEOs will find that this information is compelling and will want their leaders to be aware of it.

“It just might change how you think about leadership”

To download the video, visit  the Leading in Context Digital Store at

How to Use This Video

This 5-minute video has discussion questions at the end and is designed to be used with leader groups of all kinds – in classes, in leadership training, in meetings, at planning retreats, etc.

How to Provide Feedback

Post your comments to let me know how you like this Leading in Context™ Publication, and to let me know what other “grey areas” of ethical leadership you would like to hear more about.

Please let me know how this video has been useful to you in educating leaders, starting discussions about respect at work, and building respectful cultures.

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO/Owner of Leading in Context. She can be reached at You are invited to access the full benefits that Leading in Context provides to customers and subscribers:

  • Access selected publications via Slideshare
  • Develop ethical leaders using the materials in our Digital Store (via
  • Subscribe to this blog via email or RSS (in upper right corner of this page)
  • Subscribe via twitter @leadingincontxt
  • Connect with Leading in Context on our Facebook Page
  • Contact Linda Fisher Thornton at

Ways That Leading in Context™ Publications Meet Your Needs #3:

“I want to engage leaders and challenge them to think in news ways about responsible behavior.”

Ethical Businesses Prevent Workplace Bullying

A Leaders’ Impact    We know that how we treat people as leaders matters to our businesses – our leadership impacts employee engagement, performance, learning, the quality of customer service and so much more. Through our leadership behavior, we create a work environment that is either high-stress and unproductive or low-stress and productive.

Research Shows…

There is a growing body of research that shows that the impact of our interpersonal behavior as leaders is more important than we had previously thought, that the impact of negative workplace behaviors is more damaging than we thought, and that preventing bullying is part of ethical business leadership.

David Yamada has researched and reported major health problems associated with workplace bullying.

“Some targets have developed symptoms consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

“Targeted workers are not the only ones negatively impacted by mistreatment. Co-workers who witness or learn of this behavior may become intimidated or fearful, experiencing anxieties that affect the quality of their work lives as well.”

Yamada, David C., Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership. Journal of Values-Based Leadership, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 49, 2008; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 08-37.  SSRN:

Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute has led research that brings attention to the scope of the problem. The 2010 WBI study showed that

 “Bullying remains a problem for over a third of the population.”

Namie, Gary, Research Director for the Workplace Bullying Institute,  The WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey 2010, conducted by Zogby International.

Highlighting The Importance of Respectful Behavior

In his recent article in the Financial Post (Canada),  Workplace Bullying: North America’s Silent Epidemic Ray Williams describes research studies on the physical and psychological harm caused by bullying behaviors in the workplace and calls for us to return to a “culture of civility.”

Questions for Reflection

  1. Is anyone in our organization being mistreated by a leader or co-worker?
  2. Have we made it safe to report bullying? Have we stopped it when we knew about it?
  3. Are any of the perpetrators in our organization in senior level positions?
  4. Are we unintentionally supporting negative behavior by looking the other way?
  5. Have we considered the catastrophic impact to our people and our bottom line of allowing any negative workplace behaviors to continue?
  6. Have we made it clear in our company performance standards and leadership expectations that we have no tolerance for such behaviors? Have we backed it up with accountability and action?

The Leading in Context® Digital Store has ebooks, training modules, discussion guides and graphics supporting ethical business leadership. For more articles about responsible leadership, become a subscriber of the Leading in Context Blog!

Linda Fisher Thornton is Owner of Leading in Context LLC, a consulting firm helping business leaders lead responsibly in a complex world.  She is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Continuing Studies.

Profit-Based “Ethics”: The Mindset Behind It

Inside The Mindset of Profit-Based “Ethics”

If I interpret ethical leadership as profit-based, then I will make decisions that maximize profits. Sometimes those decisions may ignore the long-term consequences of my decisions and I may choose to cut corners now in order to increase short-term profits, without considering how that may affect others.

How the Mindset Impacts Day-to-Day Business Decisions 

How does a profitability mindset affect my decision-making? A cheaper ingredient, added in order to increase profits, may end up being identified as unhealthy or even cancerous. If my ethics are profitability-focused, then as long as it’s not illegal to use the ingredient right now, then I believe that I made a “good decision” to use it while I can  - until it is banned.

Getting Beyond Profit-Based Ethics

The trouble with using a profit-based definition of “ethics” is that by using profitability as a way to make decisions an entire spectrum of other issues is conveniently ignored. In order to avoid this trap and to move away from profit-based thinking, it’s important to broaden the variables we consider when making business decisions to include:

  • The impact of my products and services on consumers and society
  • The impact of my business operations on the planet
  • The long-term unintended consequences of my choices
  • The changing consumer mindset toward ethical business and avoiding harm
  • The erosion of customer confidence in my products, services and ethics

Linda Fisher Thornton is Owner of Leading in Context LLC. She is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Continuing Studies.



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