It has become harder to ignore the ethical scandals that are continuously discovered and presented through media channels.
Author: Pedro Neves | Reading time: 3 minutes
It looks like no sector or country is free from such problems, as scandals continue in sports, banking, health, the auto industry or even in the European Parliament. For those who are curious about these topics, a single Google search will suffice to find several top-25 or top-10 lists of ethical scandals brought to public recently.
However, the question that arises when I hear about the “next big scandal waiting to happen” is not “why do people keep engaging in unethical behaviors?”, nor “what can we do to drive ethical behavior?”. The answer to these questions can be found in innumerous studies and literature reviews (such as the ones published by Michael Brown and Linda Treviño at Leadership Quarterly in 2006, or Deanne Den Hartog at the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior in 2015). Both demonstrate that ethical (and unethical) behaviors stem from a combination of individual factors - such as consciousness, the need for power or machiavellianism – and situational factors – such as culture and the moral values of the organization.
Given the tendency for these behaviors to persist, even in contexts that highlight the importance of morality and of the motto "do things right while doing the right thing", the question I normally ask is ‘If the behaviors come to be, what can we do to minimize their impact?". Given that it seems impossible to eradicate unethical behaviors, what mechanisms do organizations and managers have at their disposal to limit the reach and impact of potential ethical flaws, especially those coming from people with higher responsibilities?
One possible answer is to develop control mechanisms that replace the leaders’ behavior and limit their capacity to harm their teams. These substitutes may be developed at the individual, work and organizational levels. For example, by stimulating organizational self-esteem among employees, managers develop more confident and motivated professionals to keep a positive outlook, who are less dependent on contextual clues and avoid behaviors that may harm their positive self-image. Providing a sense of purpose to your employees, i.e. “my work is important and has an impact on the life of others”, contributes for actions that aim at not harming others, making them more immune to deviant behaviors. Finally, an organization’s positive reputation (spread through internal communication) may also contribute to limit the reach of unethical behaviors, given that the general trend is to preserve the status that they worked hard to develop.
To sum up, an ethical organization is more than its ethical leaders – it is a combination of factors that not only promote ethical behaviors, but also create conditions to quickly constraint the destructive potential of ethical flaws.
Originally published at Forbes Portugal