Much has been written about “tone at the top,” the idea that senior leadership sets the ethical tone for the organization. It goes without saying that tone at the top is important because morality is an essential aspect of leadership. In fact, the two are irrevocably linked. But to rely solely on those at the top to drive ethics is naïve.
Emphasizing “tone at the top” alone overlooks the potential benefits of promoting organizational morality from the bottom up.
When speaking on ethics at conferences, I often pose a series of “trick” questions for the audience. (Is that unethical?) My first question is, “How many of you are in favor of morality in the workplace?” Invariably, only a few courageous souls raise their hands. The others, presumably, are concerned that promoting morality at work might encourage employees to proselytize in the breakroom or baptize at the water cooler.
Then I ask a follow-up question, “How many of you believe in organizational ethics?” BOOM! Hands shoot up throughout the room. “What,” I ask, “is the difference?” Cue the well-intentioned hairsplitting and parsing of words. Very few initially advocate morality, but virtually EVERYONE wants to promote ethics. Morality has gotten a bum rap.
Despite those who distinguish between ethics and morality, or avoid the latter word altogether for political correctness, they are one and the same.
Ethics is a branch of philosophy (“moral philosophy” to be specific) that deals with moral principles. Morality consists of principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad. You could say that that ethics is the science of morals and morality is the practice of ethics. In most contexts the two terms define one another and are therefore interchangeable, so don’t let anyone confuse you. Morality is good.
Additionally, irrespective of geographical, cultural, religious, and political differences, deep down people intuitively know right from wrong and agree on objective moral norms. (Theft and murder, for example, are universally condemned.) Organizations would be wise to take advantage of this innate moral compass within employees.
Although personal values may differ, and none of us is perfect, the majority of people share an objective moral basis for identifying bad behavior.
Most employees share a common reference through which they can objectively evaluate whether actions, behaviors, and decisions are morally right or wrong. For example, most employees would perceive deceptive, coercive, and abusive leaders as unethical. But an organization led by leaders who abuse authority to gain power and influence or resort to deceiving, coercing, and obstructing for convenience or political expediency are vulnerable unless its moral majority is empowered to evaluate and report their unethical behavior.
Consider investigations into the actions of two former US government officials: the former Secretary of State and the ex-director of the Internal Revenue Service. Both allegedly used personal email accounts to conduct official government business, some of which contained sensitive information. The former Secretary is also accused of using secret, unauthorized, and unprotected private servers to store emails containing classified intelligence correspondence from multiple agencies.
The names of these former leaders and the specific rules, protocols, or laws they may or may not have violated are not what is most important here. They are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and as of publishing time the FBI was still investigating.
These situations demonstrate that organizations are vulnerable unless there is an ethical tone at the bottom.
Where were all of the employees, auditors, and IT security personnel while this activity was allegedly occurring? According to what has been reported to date, not a single employee who exchanged official correspondence with the .com email addresses of these leaders reported having any reservations about doing so.
Furthermore, not a single internal control, nor the IT auditors responsible for monitoring and testing them, detected that any classified correspondence had been sent to non-classified email accounts. How can this be? Either no one noticed, which is inconceivable, or none of them felt empowered to say or do anything about it.
Why would followers look the other way rather than blowing the whistle on an unethical leader? Sometimes, because they have been conditioned to do so.
Although most organizations say they want employees to report wrongdoing, some simultaneously advance the notion that right and wrong are matters of positional privilege. Rules that apply to lower level employees simply do not apply to senior leaders. Employees at the bottom learn to accept double standards, override their moral instincts, and avoid judging the behavior of leaders – despite their unethical behavior – when those leaders are held to an entirely different set of rules, or no rules at all.
Similarly, there are organizations that promote consequentialist corporate cultures in which decisions of right and wrong are determined by the outcomes those decisions produce. Lying, for example, may be forbidden except when doing so will please a customer, close a sale, or appease members of the media. In this “ends justify the means” type of organizational culture it can be difficult for employees to report a leader for lying or cheating because the organization is celebrating that leader's accomplishments.
Is it any wonder whistleblowers hold their breath? Fortunately, a majority of employees intuitively know right from wrong and share a common basis for differentiating between ethical and unethical behavior. By awakening this moral majority and empowering it to promote an ethical tone at the bottom, organizations can guard against the threat of unethical leadership.
Organizations can take 5 simple steps to awaken the moral majority and promote an ethical tone at the bottom:
1) Establish consistent ethical standards that apply to all employees and situations.
2) Require all employees to participate in recurring ethics training and simulations.
3) Form cross-functional “neighborhood watch” groups to raise awareness and discourage wrongdoing.
4) Develop a simple process that outlines what employees should do if they see anyone violating ethical standards.
5) Protect and reward whistleblowers who speak up (don’t “shoot the messengers”).
In the lexicon of the working world, the word “coaching” has taken on negative connotations. Whereas coaching employees was once analogous to what an athletic coach does during practice—providing helpful tips and encouragement intended to help players improve their skills and abilities—its meaning has morphed into corporate doublespeak for getting a verbal smack down for having done something wrong.
I reject that definition wholeheartedly.
Coaching, in the proper sense of the word, is an effective means through which leaders can continually influence, inspire, and improve employee performance. And positive reinforcement is arguably the most essential ingredient of coaching because there is power in positive influence.
Positive reinforcement involves catching employees doing what they are expected to do and rewarding them with your attention, praise, and other extrinsic incentives as a means of inspiring them to repeat and continue desirable behaviors.
Woo ’em, don’t shoo ’em
Years ago, my wife’s father used to say, “You can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” As with many idioms, this one teaches a valuable lesson, especially for leaders. But before we get to the lesson, let’s consider the literal meaning of this once common expression.
Imagine you’re at a picnic enjoying good weather, delicious food, and great company. Suddenly you realize your little party has been invaded by uninvited guests. Flies! They’re everywhere. On your blanket. On your face. In your food! You don’t want flies at your picnic, much less in your homemade potato salad. You yell at them, “Shoo!” That doesn’t work. You consider whacking them with a flip flop, but as much as you’d like to punish them for ignoring your command, you decide that smashing them would be cruel (not to mention messy).
Suddenly you get the idea to inspire the flies to voluntarily replace their undesirable behavior with something more preferable by luring them away toward some enticing new reward. But what? You look inside your picnic basket and spot two empty paper cups, a bottle of vinegar, and a jar of honey. You pour a small amount of vinegar into one of the cups, then place the cup on a tree stump a short distance from your picnic table. Not a single fly expressed interest in the sour bait. You reopen the picnic basket and pour a bit of honey into the second cup and place it on the tree stump beside the vinegar. Gradually the flies abandon your food for the honey, where they enjoy their sweet reward. Problem solved!
Perhaps you’re thinking. Cute story, but what does any of this have to do with leadership?
Leaders are responsible for monitoring employee job performance, identifying undesirable or unproductive behavior, and guiding employees toward improved outcomes. How we go about doing that—whether we choose to figuratively yell at and swat them or, preferably, redirect their focus and inspire them to move in a better direction—makes all the difference.
Yelling, shooing, and swatting at employees are obviously not good ways to motivate them. Yet I’ve seen plenty of leaders spend more time telling employees what not to do and berating them for making mistakes than they do checking to see whether employees understand expectations, providing incentives to do what is expected, and rewarding employees when they fulfill expectations.
Ask ’em, don’t tell ’em
Suppose you happen upon an employee going above and beyond to satisfy a customer or client. What would you do? Some leaders might choose to ignore it since, after all, that level of service should be expected of employees. Right? Others might take a moment to compliment the employee and say something generic like, “Good job.” And a select few might actually praise the employee for specific repeatable behaviors or accomplishments, yet not seek input from the employee.
Imagine how much more productive the conversation would be if, rather than the leader doing all of the talking, the employee described and assessed his or her own performance. By asking rather than telling, leaders can take positive reinforcement to a whole new level. Let’s examine what the conversation might sound like if a leader were to ask an administrative employee about his own performance.
Leader: “Hey Luke, I couldn’t help but overhear you on the phone with that client. How do you think the conversation went?”
Employee: “Hi Amy, I think it went pretty well. He was pretty upset at first, but he seemed very happy by the time we hung up.”
Leader: “What do you think you did best?”
Employee: “Well, I suppose it really helped that I apologized right away for missing the deadline.”
Leader: “I’m sure that meant a lot to him. What else did you do well?”
Employee: “Well, I guess I took time to listen to his concerns.”
Leader: “It was good of you to let him vent, and doing so let him know our company cares. What else?”
Employee: “I made no excuses for the error and personally took full responsibility.”
Leader: “I admire you for that, especially since shipping made the error, not you. What else?”
Employee: “I assured him we would overnight the shipment to him and wave all shipping fees.”
Leader: “Good thinking, Luke. Although we cost him a day, your solution saved him some serious money. I knew I could count on you to let our client know he can count on us. Well done!”
Notice the leader in this example used questions that enabled the employee to self-assess his performance, acknowledge his understanding of his company’s expectations, and describe what he did to resolve a client issue. She also made brief, positive comments to reinforce the desired behaviors, making it much more likely that the employee will repeat those behaviors in the future. Finally, the leader coached the employee immediately – in the midst of the workday and workplace. I sometimes call this the sideline feedback model because it happens during the “game” and on the “field,” and I have used it to drive employee performance with incredible success in a variety of workplace settings.
Now let’s see what the conversation might sound like if it were between a front-of-house restaurant manager and a new employee:
Manager: “Congratulations, Dave. You’re waiting on your first table! How do you think it’s going?”
New hire: “Pretty well. Being a server is actually more fun than I thought it would be. I love people!”
Manager: “Wow, that’s great. What do you think you did best so far?”
New hire: “I made good eye contact with our guests and gave them a great big smile and a warm welcome when I approached their table, just like you taught me.”
Manager: “They seemed genuinely happy to have your attention. What else did you do well?”
New hire: “Well, I jokingly asked whether they live to eat or eat to live. The table was split.”
Manager: “Great conversation starter! I bet that got them thinking about food. What else did you do well?”
New hire: “Hmm. Let’s see. Well, I commented on how hot it is outside and suggested they start with some refreshing beverages from our drink menu.”
Manager: “Terrific! Nothing like a frozen drink on a hot day. What else?”
New hire: “I specifically pointed out a few sections in the menu, including the healthy options page for those who said they eat to live.”
Manager: “You tied your tour of the menu into the earlier conversation you started and provided personalized recommendations based on your guests preferences. Awesome! What else?”
New hire: “Um, I don’t know. I think that pretty much covers it. I’d better go check on them.”
Manager: “Hey, you’re doing fantastic. Keep providing that level of service and you’ll become one of our best servers!”
As with the leader in the previous example, the restaurant manager in this scenario used the 30-second feedback model to ask the new hire how he thought he was doing. She also affirmed and reinforced each of the positive behaviors the new hire identified and tied them to the service standards and priorities to reinforce what was covered in training. This validation is like sweet honey to an employee’s ears, especially when they are applying new knowledge and experimenting with new skills. Positive reinforcement builds self-efficacy and conditions employees to apply and repeat positive and productive behaviors again and again in the future.
One benefit of asking “How do you think it went?” is that the response enables leaders to determine whether employees understand performance expectations. Additionally, it helps leaders determine whether or not employees have the self-awareness to know whether or not they are doing what is expected of them.
Another benefit of asking versus telling is that people who participate in two-way conversations are more than three times as likely to remember what was discussed compared to those who merely listen another person speak. In fact, people remember about 20 percent of what they hear and 70 percent of what they say. For that reason, it is much more effective for us to ask employees to assess and describe their own performance while we listen than it is for us to merely tell them what we think and expect them to listen and remember what we say.
Of course, there are times when leaders must take a more assertive approach, point out unacceptable behavior, provide constructive feedback, and direct or redirect employees. But the majority of the time it is much more powerful for us to woo and ask good questions.