This provides operational input for strategies and planning around ethics and values.
It is a very exciting and yet fragile time for advancing the ethics and values work. The excitement comes because most people intuitively seek to do the right thing – or avoid the wrong – while doing their jobs. Ethical consideration also opens horizons and asks questions that help managers and employees situate themselves within the broader community and its defining issues. When we think ethically we think more holistically, and that can often inspire the excitement of creative insight or the satisfaction of contribution.
Fragility is the flip-side of excitement because this can be the point in the process in which people either assume the work to be complete as the code or values are in place. Or they become frustrated trying to master the skills and questions needed to activate genuine ethical deliberation. Change always brings some confusion but in this time of change fatigue there is just less emotional persistence to draw from, or actual time for persevering. This is also when the importance of any gap between ethical goal and managerial action becomes magnified – when signals from senior managers about intent and commitment are scrutinized. Any inconsistency can easily undo even genuine intent to learn or change.
Beyond As a Methodology:
Many organizations that have implemented ethics programs have found themselves mired in scandal, or involved in decisions that violate their own code. In some cases the code was only a cosmetic add-on. In others it was used as a filter to catch “wrong” impacts but without actually informing the perspective of strategy or integrity of operations. And in many situations the pressures of day-to-day business simply overwhelmed the ethical framework that despite training and resources never received the operational endorsements to embed beliefs and values in the culture. This simplifies many lessons, but the implication is that we who work in this realm must now go beyond “business ethics” and re-envision the possibilities of what may be called “ethics in business.”
• While “business ethics” are code-driven, “ethics in business” more profoundly integrate obligations with strategy.
• While “business ethics” first defines parameters largely as prohibitions, “ethics in business” seek to expand the engagement and possibilities for management action.
• "Business ethics" often work as a straightjacket. "Ethics in business" instead aim to create the managerial imagination and competence for dealing with ever-more urgent and strategic variables involving sustainability, social responsibility, and credibility with stakeholders and investors.
Ethical thinking in this view is not towards constraint but towards innovation.
Experience and now research confirm that ethics cannot function effectively within a closed system in which principles or values are linked exclusively to an internal objective. Management teachers have made the case that a purpose larger than business objectives is often the motivation that inspires innovation, effective organizational renewal, and high-performance teamwork. In their recent book, Good Work, psychologists Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi show that external reference points are critical for testing and exercising a robust ethical imagination. By engaging external reference points organizations relate their activity or projects to the questions or values at play in society or within the global market of ideas. This relationship with the outside world serves to deepen the importance (or purpose) of decisions or actions that otherwise would seem relative or mundane.
Mission or vision often aims high and suggests this sense of purpose. Practicing ethics in business will give it more precise definition. You may also need to ask:
Although written as values, ethics tend to get compressed and practiced as prohibitions. This is important to demark transgressions and discern character but the result is often minimalist and negative. An ethical orientation is actually latent with opportunity for the basic reason that it focuses on the terms of relationship rather than transaction. In a reality in which service and value are increasingly extended as ideas and information, this focus on relationship is actually of strategic importance. The questions here include:
Ethics are often internalized as a tool or filter for problem-solving. This again is important but risks making such deliberation either a process step or a burden. The real aim of ethical renewal – its real potential – is freeing people to bring more of their imagination, skills and integrity to their day-to-day activity. This is a reverse-empowerment by which the organization is liberated to achieve the highest potential of its people. Rather than focus on ethics as a skill, the goal is to make the ethical a way of being, a natural predisposition to the power and possibilities of trusting relationships. The questions to ask in this regard are:
Experience shows that it is very difficult to suggest or implant an ethical orientation in organizations that have suffered trauma from reengineering or downsizing. Even when ethical initiatives are sincere, the internal reception is often distorted by memories and feelings from the contraction. Overlaying new or renewed values on unresolved hurts or anger risks not only resistance but also subterfuge. A critical step in genuine transformation must be to engage the disappointment, and to honour the stories of commitments, relationships and belonging broken in the reengineering. The goal is not blame but – as with South Africa after Apartheid – to achieve reconciliation around truths. Naming and addressing the issues that defined the past creates a confidence and credibility for envisioning and addressing the future. Confidence questions include:
Skills are important. In CEO's Trust research we heard again and again that people crave the learning, training, models and practice to engage in more thorough ethical reflection. While no doubt essential, the focus on skills is also a feint or a partial excuse. In fact, lots of skills training has been wasted because people assemble new expertise without integrating this learning into lives and behaviour. Ethics, like strategy, require not only analysis but also imagination. And ethics, like implementation, require not only planning but also practice in implementation. Skills are often taught and absorbed as a linear process while the relationships in which ethics are tested and expressed are dynamic and essentially circular. Rather than master expertise the goal is to deepen relationship to extend value through values so as to engender reciprocities (“win/win”). Questions to consider here include:
In a sense the goal of ethics in business is to become invisible, to cease being an initiative and become an intuition. Organizations that thrive in this regard perceive ethics and values as basic and intertwined, not a part of the responsibilities for performance but essential to performance itself. In the current climate of scrutiny and public suspicion, ethics have become a catchall for rehabilitating governance and management. This at once makes ethics disposable, a mere tactic applied to a situational problem. Or it adds pressure to already stressed employees as an exercise in downloading still more responsibility to the people on the frontlines. The goal is not to create more work but to enable more creative and fulfilling work, to link decisions and actions into a broader network of relationships. When managed as a dynamic of respect, ethics fuel the efficiency that comes from genuine belonging. Questions to ask in this realm include:
Business ethics cannot work simply as a code or as an exercise in compliance. The consultation process has already achieved some dialogue, and this indeed is an important contributor to the momentum so far. The opportunity now is to build on this engagement, to co-create understanding, co-discover implications, and co-design learning and implementation practices. Dialogue questions include: