Ethics has been on many people’s minds lately. On day 20 of a government shutdown, we’re in a tough spot today in the US. “One of the things about ethics that is really important to understand, is that ethics isn’t for sissies,” says Professor Paul Root Wolpe, Executive Director of the Emory Center for Ethics.
He moves on to say on this week’s CEO Exclusive show, “Sometimes, you have to make really tough decisions. You have to do things that are against other interests. You have to stand up for principal at times, when it might be an expedient thing to drop principal and make a profit. And those that do it, though, especially over time, are the people that we admire. They’re the people that end up being the sort of elder statesmen of our society, or of our business world. Who rise above the pack, because they are known as having integrity. But, integrity isn’t something that you get in a day or a week or a year, it’s a life of living in accord with your values.”
Geez is he right. Yet, while this observation rings true at an intellectual level, what on earth does this mean in practice? Welcome to the study of ethics, y’all. It’s really hard to know what to do when faced with tough choices that affect lots of people. This is why it’s not for sissies.
Oh, and while you’re figuring out what to do, you have an important responsibility to model and communicate ethics in your organization. That’s assuming you want an ethical organization, of course. Professor Ed Queen, who leads their leadership programs explains, “The role of the CEO, and the c-suite, in ensuring the creation and maintenance of an ethical culture is incentivizing and creating ethical behavior in your people.”
So, when it comes to ethics, you have to walk, chew gum, balance on one foot, and be positive and inspiring all at the same time. But, you’re used to this by now, right?
Approach Ethics with Nuance and Maturity
The starting point with ethics as a business leader is to think in multiple dimensions. Paul explains, “We’re taught, very young, that ethics is what’s right and wrong, and that’s true when we’re very young. But, as we mature, and we engage the complex world, we begin to realize that ethics isn’t just about right and wrong. There are still right and wrong decisions that we make, but as adults, the vast majority of ethical problems that confront us are two values in conflict. Two right things in conflict.” Like maintaining border security and keeping the government open.
In recent articles, I’ve discussed the importance of going beyond binary or black/white thinking. In fact, this notion is at the foundation of Paul’s definition of ethics. As an adult, ethics is about resolving dilemmas, not about “being a good person”. According to the Emory Center for Ethics, a significant part of developing ethical thinking it developing an internal sensor for these conflicts.
“It isn’t always obvious, either what is an ethical issue, or what part of a decision you have to make is the ethical part. And what [we] try to do in our training is teach people to recognize an ethical issue, or recognize what element of this complex decision is the ethical element so you can take it out and look at it, and then solve it in a productive way. And that’s what I mean by ethical behavior, ethical decision making,” Paul clarifies.
Recover From Missteps and Avoid Quagmires
Given all the complexities, it’s inevitable that people will fall down. So, what about when things go wrong? According to Professor Wolpe, not all ethical lapses are equal. “Sometimes, an ethical failure is a long-term descent into an ethical quagmire, and other times, it’s just a really bad decision that someone made,” he says.
In either case, the primary solution is the same. Tell the truth. Repeat. Tell the truth about what’s gone wrong. Avoid the automatic impulse to hide. “It is a very human tendency, but it is exactly the wrong thing to do, in the case of ethical crisis. Because what you’re trying to do is restore people’s faith in your ethical sensibilities. And, if you’re covering and hiding and denying, you’re doing exactly the opposite, and you’re just making it more difficult,” Professor Wolpe advises.
With regard to systemic issues, Professor Queen recommends taking a look at culture and policies. He asks, “Do your policies really encourage people to behave badly? Do you make it easy for people to do the right thing? To communicate both kind of concerns about practices, but also to ask questions about [the right thing to do].”One of the things about ethics that is really important to understand, is that ethics isn’t for sissies” -Paul Root Wolpe, Emory Center for Ethics. Click To Tweet
Put Money in Its Proper Place
What about the 800-pound Gorilla of ethics? Money… Professor Queen highlights this issue, “One of the biggest ones currently for culture, for society, is this question about how we value people, and also, how we value a company. There is an over emphasis on [money that creates] incentives for short term thinking, and therefore, incentives to cut ethical corners. What happens when you live in a society where the only way we can really think about an individual’s value is if we monetize it?”
There are just some things that money cannot buy. Money can’t buy peace. Money can’t buy health. It can’t buy authentic human connection and it can’t buy character. The cliché is often repeated, but in many cases not acted upon. What would our public life look like if we genuinely placed a teacher who makes $50K per year at the same level in our social hierarchy as a CEO who makes $50M per year? They’re both affecting thousands of lives, aren’t they?
Professor Wolpe shares the well-known story about Mother Teresa. As the Jesuit Review tells it, “A reporter watched Mother Teresa of Calcutta as she cleaned the maggot-infested wound of a man on the street, only to say, ‘I wouldn’t do what you do for a million dollars.’ Mother is supposed to have replied, immediately, with a bit of a wry smile, ‘I wouldn’t either.’” She did not use money as her yardstick for value, yet she became one of the most influential people in her time.
My guess is that 90% of the ethical lapses in business are directly tied to this issue of placing more emphasis on money than other concerns. If this assessment is true, then the solution is simple (not easy). Start using “moral language”—language about value and values—that doesn’t reference or include money. Right now, in business, there’s an impetus to measure everything in terms of money. But, money isn’t the only measure of value, and CEOs who are serious about ethics need to recognize and act on this idea.
Developing ethical thinking and acting on it is the upshot of this conversation. “People can learn to behave more ethically, whatever their general inclination is. Ethical behavior is a skill build. You can learn how to make ethical decisions; you can learn how to recognize ethical issues when they arise,” Professor Wolpe shares with lots of hope. So, yes, dilemmas can be resolved, and we can all grow together.