The End of Ethical Compartmentalization

By Linda Fisher Thornton

That Was Then

What people did in their spare time used to be private, allowing them to assume varying personas in their different roles. Someone could be buttoned up and ethical at work, but make really bad decisions elsewhere. People could choose to think about their lives as made up of separate roles that had separate rules.

This is Now

With the extreme transparency social media provides, multiple personas are discoverable. Incongruent ones are easily identified. Any perceived protection from compartmentalization is erased.

“Moral responsibility requires us to move away from a role-based life game which leads us to compartmentalize and forget who we are and what we value at a significant cost.”

— Cecile, Rozuel, University of Lancaster in Business Ethics

Ethical compartmentalization is not good leadership. Leaders are expected to be authentic, not just “play a role.” And ethics is not something we can “apply only when needed.”

Authenticity and Ethical Values

Authenticity requires that we make ethical choices all the time, not just in certain settings. Our ethical values need to be applied consistently across settings. Otherwise we are only “partly ethical” or “intermittently ethical.”

“Authentic leaders are ethical leaders. They’ve identified their ethical codes, and they never compromise on what they believe to be right and wrong.”               

  Authentic Leadership, Mindtools.com

With the end of any perceived benefits from compartmentalization, our various roles are simply additional places to apply our positive ethical values. Authentic leadership is consistent across responsibilities, roles and settings, and that includes how we apply our ethical values. It’s time to do the work.

“We need to focus on how we can enable leaders to become more authentic, and give them the tools to do so. In this way authentic leaders will be able to create better lives for everyone they serve.”

Bill George, Senior Fellow, Harvard Business School

We need to help leaders learn how to put ethical values into practice in every setting, every time.

 

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