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How to identify unethical leadership behaviours in your organisation

Ethical issues are bound to arise at some point in time in organisations. Perhaps, this is because ethics entails distinguishing between good and evil, right, and wrong concerning actions, character, and decisions of people. Thus, ethical values are diverse and subjective to one’s beliefs, particularly among cultures. This can create a challenge in identifying ethical issues in an organisation. In 2013, research revealed that occupational variables, i.e., gender, culture, managerial experiences, demographics, and experiences in organisational settings influence the way people interpret, identify, and make decisions on ethical issues. Therefore, it is crucial that organisations identify their ethical values and that those values are woven into the organisation’s culture.

According to Kidder, four key factors create a value-based culture: common language, shared core values, commitment from top management, and moral courage. And once ethical values are woven into the culture, it will be easier to determine if there are ethical problems in the organisation. Often consultants and coaches can assist organisations by helping to identify problems, taking an objective stance on the ethical issue, and helping the management team and the human resources unit write ethical codes of conduct and policies.

The typical response to business ethics and moral leadership is that they are oxymorons. Nearly all reviews of the news headlines will reveal ethical problems in organisations, regardless of the country or culture. Part of the issue is that most people have a relativist worldview. However, we must understand that most organisations are a function and reflection of their leaders. The concept of followership in the leadership equation, regarded as one of the most critical research focus in the last twenty years, underscores this idea.

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Given that organisations are innately tied to their leaders, and ethics are a function of people, the observation of leaders provides a powerful lens from which to discern ethical issues in an organisation. How does this happen? By simply watching for the inverse or opposite of ethical behaviour in the leadership and management team.

For example, sincerity and authenticity are essential traits behind true leadership empowerment. But when leaders “act with guile” and “express false emotions”, that is the opposite of sincerity and authenticity, respectively, they engage in manipulation consciously or unconsciously. In this instance, you have evidence of unethical behaviour in the organisation because of how the leaders carry themselves. Some of the proofs of ethical problems are a lousy leader/follower relationship, leaders trampling on the rights of others, a lack of communication, and a disconnect between leader words and deeds. Other indicators are leader abuse of power and self-service.

Thus, leaders must exemplify ethical values, identify, and be woven into the organisations’ culture so that employees have shared core values and can readily identify and deal with any ethical problems that may arise. Therefore, without a continuous commitment, enforcement and modelling of leadership, the standards of business ethics cannot and will not be achieved in any organisation because ethics of leadership, either good or bad, thus affect the ethos of the workplace and help form the ethical choices and decisions of the employees within an establishment. Leaders help set the tone, develop the vision, and shape the behaviours of all those involved in organisational life.

Informal conversations with leaders and around them in the organisations can reveal the presence of unethical behaviours. Also, comparing the espoused values of the organisation to actual values in practice could give signals of possible unethical behaviour. If values are too centred on interest and performance, it may signify a lack of balance. If there are significant gaps between the values espoused by the organisation and those in practice, it is evidence of dissonance between the “talk and the walk”. When people learn to profess one thing while doing another one, they are likely to make it a constant pattern of behaviour.

Unfortunately, leaders in positions of power tend to create cultures of “organisational totalitarianism” or “patrimonial bureaucracies” in which they are shielded from accountability. This is where the system and structure of the organisation can assist in righting this kind of culture by advocating for organisational transparency and accountability through actual structural and procedural checks. In this way, a vicious cycle of enabling unethical behaviour can be broken, and authentic moral leadership can emerge. Only ethical leaders will want to live within such boundaries if the organisation is committed to organisational structure and protocols that hold leaders accountable. A virtuous cycle can emerge as the leaders begin to model ethical behaviour and awaken the spirit of ethical and moral uprightness among their followers. What can then develop is a culture of integrity, which will cause an organisation to be healthy and consequently thrive.

Do look out for a continuation of this article.

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