Are Best Practices Really Best?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Organizations are facing multiple connected challenges. First, they need to prevent ethical mistakes in a high speed, highly transparent business environment. Second, they need to engage leaders in relevant ethical learning so that the principles “stick” and are used to handle real problems. Third, they need to help leaders apply ethical thinking so they don’t just take “best practices” at face value.

“The ‘supply side’ of ethics — i.e., organizations’ ability to avoid ethical lapses — has never been more challenging.”

Ghassan Khoury and Maria Semykoz, The New Frontier of Business Ethics, Gallup

The important thing to remember is that we are helping people learn HOW to think, not WHAT to think. Paul Thagard, PhD, a Canadian philisopher and cognitive scientist says that “ethical judgments are often highly emotional, when people express their strong approval or disapproval of various acts.   Whether they are also rational depends on whether the cognitive appraisal that is part of emotion is done well or badly.” (Paul Thagard, PhD, Ethical Thinking Should be Rational AND Emotional, Psychology Today)

Teaching ethical reasoning is not about teaching what one should do in particular circumstances, it is about teaching students how wisely to make very difficult decisions involving ethical considerations where the answers are anything but clear cut.

Robert J. Sternberg, Cornell University, Developing ethical reasoning and/or ethical decision making

If we want to implement ethical decisions, we will need to do our own ethical thinking and not borrow the thinking of others. Approaches considered “best practices” are often used as blueprints by organizations, but that is not always an effective approach when the goal is ethical thinking.

Tony Schwartz, in his HBR article What it Takes to Think Deeply About Complex Problems, reminds us that “managing complexity requires courage ­— the willingness to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty and let its rivers run through us.” He explains that “the best practice is to not overrely on best practices, which typically emerge from our current assumptions and worldview.

Replicating best practices is common since it seems to save organizations quite a bit of time and money. The problem is that the “best practice” that earned one organization a desired result may or may not have been derived using ethical thinking. It can be efficient, cost effective and impactful AND look like an amazing shortcut, but that “best practice” may not honor all of our organization’s values.

We need to do the work to apply ethical values to avoid replicating flawed thinking in our organizations. We can’t skip carefully ethical consideration just because an action is described as a “best practice.” To drive this point home, ask leader groups to run some “industry best practices” through your organization’s values to see how well they hold up.

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Are Ethics and Morals Different?

Labarynth representing ethics and morals

By Linda Fisher Thornton

With my background in Linguistics, I tend to view the divergence of ethics terms (that originally meant the same thing) as a distraction from what we need to know and do. Creating categories and subcategories of ethics may ‘carve out new territory’ or help us understand ethics at a deeper level, but it also puts more perceived distance between leaders and ethical choices.

There are dozens of terms for different types and branches of ethics. Unfortunately, this abundance of ethical terminology causes leaders and managers to experience overload and confusion. We may divide things up into smaller parts to understand them, but to act on them requires a more holistic view.

So let’s dig into the big question – “Are ethics and morals the same thing?” Ethicists and scholars disagree. Some scholars advocate the importance of acknowledging the many different branches of ethics that have been carved out since the terms were originated. I believe that it’s more helpful to remember that ethics and morals originally meant the same thing.

“The Latin ‘moral’ was coined by Cicero to translate ‘ethical’ from Greek philosophy so that at the start the two words were equivalent.”

G. Moran, NYU

We can review peer-reviewed encyclopedia entries of different aspects of ethics, which are helpful for learning, but when we need to make good choices in real life we need a different perspective.

“In contemporary non-technical use, the two terms are more or less interchangeable, though ‘ethics’ has slightly more flavor of theory.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy

Are ethics and morals different? While some may argue that the terms have diverged, we should remember that ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ originally meant the same thing. Remember the origin of the words helps us avoid getting stuck in the terminology quagmire and lets us focus our energy on determining the right thing to do.

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10 Quotes To Inspire Leaders in Divisive Times

grass-1913167_1920By Linda Fisher Thornton

There were many things that went right in the past year, despite the omnipresent bad news. Here is a collection of inspiring quotes to keep us moving forward and ready to face the challenges ahead.

“When the world is in the midst of change, when adversity and opportunity are almost indistinguishable, this is the time for visionary leadership and when leaders need to look beyond the survival needs of those they’re serving.”  — Chip Conley

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.” — Emily Dickinson

“Just as we develop our physical muscles through overcoming opposition – such as lifting weights – we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity.” — Stephen Covey


“Let us make our future now, and let us make our dreams tomorrow’s reality.” — Malala Yousafzai

“Don’t find fault, find a remedy.” — Henry Ford

“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

“A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.” — Nelson Mandela

“I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death… I think… peace and tranquillity will return again.” — Anne Frank

“Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.” — John Wayne

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” — Albert Einstein

…and for good measure, here are 50 more.

Share more quotes you find inspiring in the comments!

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10 Tricky Questions About Ethics and Leadership Answered

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Go Into the New Year With Answers

What is the Ultimate Goal of Leadership?

“The question is not “Which one of these perspectives is right?” because they are all important ways of thinking about the goal of leadership. They are part of a bigger view that incorporates many dimensions of leadership responsibility. The question is “How can we honor all of them?”

What Does it Mean to Take Responsibility in Leadership?

“These surveys reflect increasing expectations for business leaders  – the expectations that we take responsibility well beyond managing our own Profits, to also improve life for People, support the success of Communities and protect the Planet. Profits and Corporate Social Responsibility are no longer seen as mutually exclusive ideals.” 

Why Do People Often Disagree About The Right Thing To Do?

“Why is it so difficult to agree on the right thing to do? One of the reasons we may not agree is that each of us may be using a different definition of what is “good.” Here are 7 different interpretations of what is ethically good, based on the framework in 7 Lenses

What is an Ethical Workplace?

“Grounding our work in values is critically important but it’s not enough. There’s much more to being ready for the future of leadership than just staying aligned with positive values. This week I’m sharing a graphic about 5 other variables that need to be in place to build a positive ethical culture – the proper time orientation, focus, response, level and complexity.

What is Integrity?

“Following this definition, integrity is the alignment of our thoughts, actions and words with our personal values.  The tricky thing about integrity in organizations is that integrity is partly internal (what we think) and partly external (what we say and do).”

What is Conscious Capitalism?

“Conscious capitalism involves thinking beyond self-interests, demonstrating care for stakeholders at the global level, using a long-term time orientation and seeing the company’s role in the world through a systems view.”

What is the Greater Good?

“Many people refer to the “greater good” as an important part of leading ethically, and use different words to describe it. The descriptions they use collectively paint a picture of a responsibility to think beyond ourselves and to work for a better, inclusive society.”

What is Authentic Leadership?

“I believe that the following 14 personal, interpersonal and societal dimensions together form what we think of as authenticity. They involve overcoming the internal and external barriers to living an intentional, aware and ethical life.”

As you review these reader favorites, think about how you will adapt to changing ethical leadership expectations.”

As you plan for a successful year, keep in mind that ethics is a hot topic for consumers. How well you understand and apply ethical business leadership will have a strong bearing on your success.

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