By Linda Fisher Thornton
The question for today is “Can we control ethics?” Leaders have tried to control ethics with compliance-based systems (based on rules and penalties) but that does not tend to inspire people to ethical action. Leaders have tried to control ethics by running a tight ship, closely managing workers, but that does not bring out the best in people and may lead to workers not caring about protecting the company’s reputation.
How Can We “Control” Ethics?
The catch about ethical performance and action are that they are driven by a performance system, and a system cannot be “controlled” in the literal sense. Systems are complex, and one action does not necessarily generate a particular desired reaction. In other words, the performance context and leadership matter greatly in the results a company will get.
Thinking Drives Behavior
Another complicating factor in the ethical performance system is that thinking drives behavior. Ethical thinking is a competence that many leaders have not yet mastered, and the gap is evident in the headlines about ethical scandals in the news. We cannot let reflexive thoughts drive our choices or we may only look out for our own interests and ignore a wide array of complex ethical issues.
Does Control Have Any Place in Ethics?
I do believe that control has an important place in an ethical system. I’m talking about the important role of self-control. Self-control can be thought of as a “moral muscle” that improves with practice, according to Roy F. Baumeister
“Philosophers and psychologists have been discussing the importance of self-control for ages. Plato, for example, argued that the human experience is a constant struggle between our desire and rationality, and that self-control is needed to achieve our ideal form.”
Kai Chi (Sam) YamHuiwen LianD. Lance FerrisDouglas Brown, Leadership Takes Self-Control. Here’s What We Know About It, Harvard Business Review
When leaders try to “control” others to manage ethics, their efforts are misplaced. Only by controlling themselves and carefully managing the ethical performance system will they be supporting ethical choices and building an ethical organization.
Ethical leaders model self-control, putting in the effort to make tough ethical choices instead of making easy unexamined decisions.
Ethical leaders control their thoughts, intentionally aligning decisions with ethical values.
Ethical leaders control their actions, taking care that those actions are ethical and appropriate.
Ethical leaders control their tongues, aligning what they say with respect, care and inclusion.
Leaders who commit to continual learning will see that they must
- Support continual learning and demonstrate it for others
- Manage their own ethics carefully and set an example for others
- Hire ethical people
- Manage the ethical performance system carefully, aligning expectations, training and support, feedback and rewards with ethical values
These leadership actions help create the conditions for ethical success. It all starts with the leader demonstrating self-control.
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