Given that organisations are innately a reflection of their leaders and ethics are a function of people’s behaviour, the observation of the leader’s behaviour provides a powerful lens from which to discern ethical issues in an organisation.
Behavioural science experts Rooke and Torbert submit that most developmental psychologists agree that what differentiates leaders is not their philosophy of leadership, personality, or management style. Instead, it is their internal “action logic”, how they interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged. However, relatively few leaders try to understand their action logic, and fewer still have explored the possibility of changing it.
In the 1970s, there was a story about the Ford Pinto organisation. They fired many of their employees when their cars were under the radar for multiple accidents, which caused a few innocent deaths. It is said that before they issue a recall, their solution to the crisis on had was to fire their employees. Investigation revealed that the leaders of this organisation decided to cut corners due to high competition in the automotive industry.
Organisations that we have seen fallen due to unethical business practices is owing to their followers being afraid to challenge the status quo, speaking out when things were done wrong. Accountability is one of the critical steps to sustaining ethics in an organisation. Followers, employees, and other stakeholders should hold their leaders accountable for their decisions, just as leaders should very much do the same for their employees. An ethical leader will never want to sacrifice their legitimate interests to the employee or the employees’ interests to satisfy their own.
Rooke and Torbert catalogued seven transformations of leadership, to which one’s moral character is challenged and can alternate based on the prevailing circumstances:
1. The Opportunist – the leader, represents mistrust, egocentrism and manipulativeness.
2. The Diplomat – the leader who seeks to please people in a higher status showcasing eye service while avoiding conflict.
3. The Expert – the leader exercise control by demonstrating their knowledge both in their professional and personal lives.
4. The Achiever – the leader’s style and mode of operation prohibit out of the box thinking.
5. The Individualist – the leader, ignores the rules they regard as irrelevant, becoming a source of contention among the followers
6. The Strategist – the leader, creates a shared vision and deal with conflict more comfortably.
7. The Alchemist – the leader is charismatic, aware of others and lives by a high moral standard.
When uncovered unethical behaviours account for lack of understanding about their harmful nature, the human resources unit, along with an organisational development expert, will need to help the organisation acquire the knowledge about the nature of the behaviours in question and explain why and how they are hurting the organisation. If uncovered immoral behaviours are motivated by self-interest, the organisational development expert will help design less “tempting” work realities.
This can be done by educating employees on other interests of higher importance that can be preserved by behaving ethically. It can also be done by officially improving the provision for “physiological needs, protection needs, the need for belonging, and the need for self-esteem and importance” so that leaders can focus on self-actualisation. Leaders who concentrate on self-actualisation are more motivated to behave ethically. But reducing self-centred needs cannot correct the behaviours if the risk for unethical behaviour is not authentic or insignificant. When unethical behaviours are uncovered, one last thing is to develop a system that makes it hard to hide, as Gyges did in Plato’s republic. It will also be helpful here to set up or improve checks and balances in decision making.
Having identified the ethical problem in an organisation, one must confront the problem but do so in a manner that will be received in good faith. Informing the actors of the perceived ethical dilemma initiates the resolution process. Regarding the leader-follower relationship, opening the communication lines helps identify the root cause and enables the leader and followers to work towards a resolution. If nothing works, it could require the removal of the person or persons causing the ethical problems.
Further, Dubrin recommended an eight-step guide to ethical decision making that a leader and their leadership team can utilise when making decisions that bother on ethics. This includes
1. gathering facts on ethical consideration,
2. defining the ethical issues,
3. identify the affected parties,
4. be mindful of the consequences
5. know the obligations of unethical practices,
6. consideration for character and integrity,
7. creative thinking about potential actions, and
8. follow your intuition
Finally, unlearning the improper behaviour and relearning the ethical behaviour is a method for resolutions, but to come to a resolution might require removing the individual(s) perpetuating the unethical behaviour.