Values-Based Culture: The Nudge

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I was driving recently when the car beside me started to veer over into my lane. I was able to avoid an accident, but it made me think about what happens when employees start “crossing the line” in organizations. When someone becomes aware that another employee is doing something that goes against the company’s values, what happens then?

There are things leaders can do. Unlike the car example, the conditions needed to avoid a problem when an employee starts to cross the line are more complex. And the potential problems that can happen (if an employee crosses the line and does something unethical) are numerous. Under the right conditions, employees may nudge each other to stay in the lane, and a positive, high trust culture helps create those conditions.

Employees Nudge Each Other to Stay in the Lane

In a positive culture where ethical values are enforced, people may see a violation as hurting them, the team and the company. They may nudge one another to stay in the lane and stop doing things that cross the line.

In a negative culture, though, there is not a high level of trust connecting leaders and employees, and employees may see an ethical violation as “hurting management,” but not hurting them. Worse, they may see it as an opportunity to “stick it to management” by crossing the line themselves.

Building a “Nudge” Infrastructure

“Nudging can illuminate the path of least resistance. When presented with a problem, we often simply take the easiest route to a solution. Harness this impulse by nudging people towards the ethical decision.”

Nudging for Ethics: Applying Small Changes to Promote Ethical Outcomes, Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership

In a robust ethical culture the ideal outcome is that the employee who notices the line crossing wants to protect the integrity of the organization and its values. In some cases, employees will “nudge” a colleague in a compelling way to stop going over the line, and call on the line crosser to follow company values. This only works, though, if company values are known, widely shared and modeled by leaders, people are held accountable for following them, and there is a strong foundation of trust.

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership  

© 2009-2023 Leading in Context LLC

1 comment

  1. Linda:

    Always great to read your blog. I have been publishing a lot about values and leadership and was attracted by what you had to say.

    Keep up the amazing work!



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