By Linda Fisher Thornton
We owe it to our employees to make ethics real. People learning ethics are often given “blah blah boring” material (and then expected to remember and apply it). I believe that this is not just a mistake, it’s a crime! Why? Because ethics is anything but boring. Ethics is really interesting stuff when you dive into its complexities.
Today I’m sharing 5 ways to talk about ethics without being “blah blah boring.” Feel free to use these as conversation starters with your teams, and let me know if they make your conversations more meaningful.
1. Ethics is human
Ethics is inherently human. It focuses on how broadly we consider our impact on others and honor their well-being. And “others” doesn’t just include our coworkers and customers. We have an ethical responsibility to many “others, ” even some who we may never meet.
How can we bring ethics to life in our conversations as a human responsibility – a responsibility to do good and avoid harm for an ever-broadening array of “others?”
2. Ethics is positive
Ethics is not just laws, regulations or ethics codes. Those are simply safety nets to keep us on the positive (and legal) side of ethics. Ethics is really about high level positive values like respect and care, service and sustainability.
How can we stop fixating on the safety nets, and start talking more about the positive values?
3. Ethics is multidimensional
There are hundreds of different terms used to describe ethics, and many angles from which to approach it. There’s personal ethics (integrity and character), interpersonal ethics (respect and care), environmental ethics (respect for life and sustainability) and societal ethics (supporting communities and the greater good). Add professional ethics (codes for each profession) and organizational ethical culture to the mix too.
How can we talk about the dimensions of what really matters in ethics instead of giving people oversimplified statements like “always do the right thing?”
4. Ethics is a system
Not only is ethics multidimensional, it’s also systemic. Building an ethical culture requires the alignment of many different aspects of ethics including expectations, communication and full accountability.
How can we help our leaders learn how to build an ethical high-trust culture where people can do their best work?
5. Ethics is a learning journey
Not only are we all human, striving to meet increasing ethics expectations as part of an organizational system, we’re also at different stages in our ethical development. We’re all learning. The very human challenges are for us to learn fast enough to keep up, and to aim high enough to act on values.
How can we bring ethics to life by talking about it as an ongoing learning journey toward positive values, rather than as a training event, a problem or a set of rules?
Boring ethics content will not get your organization where it needs to go. It may put people to sleep, or cause them to “check out” in future ethics conversations. Don’t settle for weak, oversimplified or vague messages as the scaffolding for your organization’s ethics. People need clear messages that are relevant and that help them deal with complexity. There’s too much at stake to rely on “blah blah boring.”
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For more, see 7 Lenses (foreword by Stephen M. R. Covey) and the related 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?
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