Ethics is Actionable

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Some people think about ethics as a theoretical concept that lives in procedures and regulations, but they’re missing the point. Ethics is not just an esoteric concept. It’s an actionable responsibility.

Ethics requires moving beyond convenience and concern for self to concern for others.

Our ethics doesn’t live in the codes and manuals… Ethics is in the decisions we make. It’s in the way we resolve the tension between gaining personal benefit and creating value for others… Ethical guidelines are there to help us, but they do not become our ethics unless we choose to follow them every day.

Linda Fisher Thornton, Ethics Isn’t “Out There”: It’s Us And Our Choices

Leaders bear an even greater responsibility for ethical action because they must lead others to ethical performance through their guidance and example.

When an action is convenient and not appropriate, don’t call it leadership. Leadership is about moving beyond concern for self to also consider the well-being and success of others.

Linda Fisher Thornton, Leaders: What’s Missing in Convenient Actions? Values, Leading in Context Blog

As leaders, our ethical values show up when we take action that is grounded in ethical values:

  • Make important decisions
  • Choose employees to recognize, reward and promote
  • Model expected ethics for others to emulate
  • Treat others with respect and care

It’s in the time we take to teach employees about ethics and values, and the care we take to model ethical behavior so that everyone can see what it looks like in action.

Linda Fisher Thornton, Ethics Isn’t “Out There”: It’s Us And Our Choices

Now is a great time to move well beyond the ethics manual on the shelf and offering ethics training to “check off the box.” It’s time to move from insight to action – from what we know is important to what we actually do every day.

5 Ways to Avoid Opinions That Lack Insight and Understanding

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Lately we’ve been seeing too much content that is not grounded in understanding. Some of it is intentionally misleading and some of it is well-intentioned but misinformed.

What this means is that we have to learn how to recognize misinformation, but also, and even more importantly, carefully tend how we convey our own opinions.

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”

― Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man

Before sharing your opinion, use the questions in this Self-Check; make sure you are on track to sharing your opinion in a way that leads to insight and understanding.

Opinion Self-Check

  1. Do I get angry when I think about this?
    • Anger clouds our judgment and bypasses our moral checks
    • If it makes you angry, slow down
  2. Have I researched the issue using multiple reputable sources?
    • Spreading misinformation is ethically problematic
    • Do your research first
  3. Have I thought it through before expressing an opinion?
    • Speaking without thinking is a recipe for disaster
    • Think about the issue and how your opinion could be perceived by others
  4. Have I listened to what a diverse group of voices is saying on the subject?
    • Our social media feed will share content that agrees with what we already believe, entrenching us in a narrow perspective
    • Seek out differing opinions from people and groups before you make up your mind on the issue
  5. Have I stayed open to changing my mind?
    • A closed mind isn’t going to change as the world changes
    • Stay open to changing your opinion as you learn more and reflect on the issue

As Clara Barton famously said, we “cannot afford the luxury of a closed mind.”

Who’s Accountable For Ethical Artificial Intelligence?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Who is accountable for ethical artificial intelligence? How do you build accountability into your organization’s use of AI? I was recently invited to answer those questions in a guest blog post published on the EDUCAUSE Professional Development Commons and EDUCAUSE Review.

There is more to think about when implementing AI than just efficiency and time savings. There are ethical implications at every step in the process. This article includes an overview of those ethical implications and steps organizations can take to build ethics into current and future AI projects.

“Determining who is responsible for ethical AI turns out to be more complicated than identifying the person who created the program. There are potentially multiple responsible parties, including programmers, sellers, and implementers of AI-enabled products and services. For AI to be ethical, multiple parties must fulfill their ethical obligations. IT departments should be ready to assess and manage ethics before, during, and after AI deployment.”

Linda Fisher Thornton, Artificial Intelligence and Ethical Accountability, EDUCAUSE Professional Development Commons and EDUCAUSE Review.

While the article was written for higher education IT professionals, the principles apply to any IT department in any industry that is directly or indirectly (through vendors) using AI.

The article is governed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Share this article with your team to establish a baseline understanding of ethical accountability for AI, and to incorporate key steps into your planning and implementation processes.

This article was originally published in the EDUCAUSE Professional Development Commons (blog) and EDUCAUSE REVIEW, Artificial Intelligence and Ethical Accountability, EDUCAUSE Review, July 31, 2020.

How to Be Human (Together)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This week I’m sharing an edited compilation of three previously published posts that are relevant for leaders and organizations wanting to honor human rights in chaotic times. The first addresses the risk of excluding any humans from our organizational statement of inclusion. The second explains why values transcend borders and boundaries, and the third explains that how we perceive people who are ‘different’ impacts our behavior and our ethics.

Inclusion: The Power of Regardless

Some inclusion statements begin with “we respect all people and treat them fairly, regardless of…”  and then include a long list of differences that we should overcome. These lists are hard to communicate, difficult to remember and ever-changing as we expand our understanding of human rights. 

Why not aim for where the statement is going, rather than where it’s been? We can keep adding to that “regardless” list until it becomes too unwieldy to use, or we can simply say now:

“We respect all people and treat them fairly, regardless.”

That’s the message behind the UN Global Declaration of Human Rights, championed by Eleanor Roosevelt. 

I know what you might be thinking. Not everyone is ready to make this leap all at once. What we can do is make sure that we are moving our organizations in this direction with all due haste, knowing that this is the leadership mindset that is required of us in a global society, regardless.

Seeing Beyond Borders and Walls

When you make a commitment to ethical values and ethical choices, boundaries and walls only indicate the boundaries of new places to apply those ethical values and choices. Beyond them, ethical values matter just as much as they matter within your own walls. You could argue that they matter more, because you are stepping into other cultures and ways of life and need to take special care to show respect.

Any argument that we can be disrespectful or harmful to others who live outside of our borders is based on flawed thinking, self-interest, myopia and a lack of moral awareness.

Ethical leaders see beyond walls. They don’t dehumanize people to improve their own position.

Ethical leaders think beyond themselves on a global scale. They don’t excuse their own or anyone else’s bad behavior or unethical choices

Ethical Leadership: Perceptions of “Different” Impact Our Behavior

How we think as leaders directly impacts our behavior by compelling us to act based on the value judgments 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 of these two approaches is ethical?

“Ethical Thinking Isn’t Automatic”

By Linda Fisher Thornton

“For ethical leadership to stick, the culture needs an infrastructure that consistently supports acting on stated values…Ethical cultures treat ethical thinking as something that must be cultivated, demonstrated, and practiced over time.”

My article, “Ethical Thinking Isn’t Automatic,” featured in the August issue of the Talent Development Journal, describes five culture gaps that inhibit ethical leadership. These culture gaps are common problems that organizations should watch for and avoid.

You won’t want to miss this article. It includes advice to organizations wanting to build ethical cultures, and is grounded in decades of experience and observations about where cultures often fall short.

“Companies fall into five common traps on the way to building an ethics-rich culture: no active focus on values, oversimplification of complex issues, lack of behavior boundaries, lack of integration, and ignoring the learning curve.”

Linda Fisher Thornton, Ethical Thinking Isn’t Automatic, Talent Development Journal

Ethical thinking doesn’t happen without the infrastructure to support it. Does your organization have it in place or is it burdened with one of the five culture gaps? Read the full article to learn how to identify and resolve five common culture gaps that erode ethical leadership.

Subscribe at LeadinginContext.com/Blog.

COVID-19 Response: 12 Resources for Business

By Linda Fisher Thornton

It’s important to weigh both the business and human impacts of the Coronavirus when making critical business decisions. A sound understanding of the situation combined with ethical values will help us make leadership decisions that will be good for our customers and the long-term viability of our businesses.

These 9 resources are filled with insights that will help businesses of all sizes make good decisions in challenging times.

9 Resources For Helping Businesses Deal With the Coronavirus:

  1. COVID-19 Implications For Business, March 2020 Executive Briefing, McKinsey.com
  2. Coronavirus (COVID-19): Leadership Resources for Times of Crisis, Center for Creative Leadership
  3. COVID-19 Human Resources Policy Survey Report, Gallagher
  4. Implementation of Mitigation Strategies For Communities With Local COVID-19 Transmission, CDC.gov
  5. Coronavirus Small Business Guide, US Chamber of Commerce
  6. Three Elements of Value® For Consumers Take Precendence During a Pandemic, Eric Almquist, Bain.com
  7. COVID-19 Business Resources, Gallagher
  8. For B2B Companies, Six Elements of Value® Matter Most in the Coronavirus Pandemic, Jamie Cleghorn and Eric Almquist, Bain.com
  9. 4 Strategies to Help Your Business Recover From Coronavirus, Greg Schwartz, Entrepreneur.com

And 3 More Resources For Applying 7 Lenses of Ethical Leadership

Making decisions based on values requires long term thinking and carefully balancing the best interests of our constituents with concerns for our own future. Looking through any one lens won’t help us achieve that balance. We need a kaleidoscopic perspective to get a clear view of the ethical implications.

Here are 3 more resources based on my book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership that will help as you make difficult decisions in challenging times.

Learn how to use the 7 Lenses Model to evaluate your choices.

Seeing the Nuances of Ethical Leadership: A Developmental Model

Linda Fisher Thornton’s Leadership Podcast Interviews On How to Use the 7 Lenses of Ethical Leadership

Companies Doing Good in Bad Times

By Linda Fisher Thornton

A pandemic is an event that happens to all of us. All our plans are scrapped and we have to reinvent ourselves in real time, with others still depending on us for services. Protests, as they should, have a profound impact on all of us. Dealing with these situations is the ultimate leadership challenge.

I am grateful to see so many businesses sharing resources and ideas freely and finding a way to do some good for others during this challenging time. Our shared crises can only be managed effectively with everyone pulling together to make good choices.

Some people approach the challenge of leading in bad times from the point of self-interest, trying to benefit from the misfortune of others. They may focus on hoarding critical supplies and price gouging as they take advantage of the situation.

Ethical leaders, in contrast, think about their responsibility to others at a higher level and for the longer term. Companies that put the greater good ahead of profits and “business as usual” are inspiring all of us.

George Floyd’s tragic murder during the pandemic is sparking companies to take a stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, including some companies who have already taken steps to help others get through the pandemic.

Shana Lebowitz noted in Business Insider that the most effective responses to George Floyd’s death “confronted discomfort head on, and invited difficult conversations. And they outlined concrete plans for cultivating diversity and inclusion, both in the workplace and in the US more generally.”

We are leading in a time when how we use our voice matters a great deal. I hope that these examples of companies taking a stand for good will prompt you to consider how you can amplify your leadership by doing good in bad times.

10 Things Ethical Leaders Believe

By Linda Fisher Thornton

While dealing with the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic, we need to remember that good decisions are always made based on values. To confirm what those values are that should guide our choices, this week I’m sharing my Manifesto What Ethical Leaders Believe.

This Manifesto frames ethical leadership in clear language, and is shareable under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License. It includes 10 Things Ethical Leaders Believe that transform their leadership and their organizations.

Click the cover image above to download What Ethical Leaders Believe and share it with your colleagues and friends (the download link is at the top right of the page). It includes an introduction to the philosophy behind my work and it previews the ethical leadership book 7 Lenses.

There is no check-box for ethical leadership. It is an ongoing individual and organizational journey.

Linda Fisher Thornton, What Ethical Leaders Believe: The Leading in Context Manifesto, ChangeThis.com

Take a moment to focus and ground your leadership in the 10 Things Ethical Leaders Believe in this timely Manifesto. I hope it will help you make the difficult choices you face in the coming days and weeks.

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