May 2019

Human head silhouette with question mark concept

The Leaders Dilemma

That is the subtext in the title of my latest book, The Battle for Ethics and Integrity in the Workplace. This month’s article borrows  a key concept from the introduction to this book. The challenge in writing this article was similar to the challenge in writing the book – choosing the right approach. It wasn’t a lack of material. Anyone reading the newspapers, any of several major business magazines, or the business news on television would know about the multiple ethics failures across the corporate landscape in recent years.

For example, the recent disclosures about the Chinese Technology giant Huawei and its previously unknown association with the Chinese military offers a useful lesson in how governments, large corporations, and the advertising world engage in manipulating the understanding and behavior of people. Huawei’s position at the forefront of 5G technology gave it the perfect opportunity to influence people using these well-established manipulation techniques.

Manipulating the behavior of people to act in a certain way is well documented, and the issues surrounding Huawei was a useful reminder that it is big business and has been so for many years. Several years ago an Economist, Dr. Richard Thaler, won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research in “nudging” people to do what companies want them to do. His research is being applied widely around the world. It stands to reason that if people are susceptible to influence and “guided” to behave in a certain way in the broader world, companies themselves also are susceptible to such influence.

Laws exist to protect people from subliminal messages as that is a form of indoctrination and mind control, but influencing people through advertising and other assorted messaging is legal. Many of the manipulation tools and techniques run very close to the edge, and sometimes step over into the unethical.

The best protection companies and people have against this kind of manipulation is a healthy dose of skepticism. A willingness to question what is being said can prevent companies and people from taking actions that lead to unethical behaviors. As always, successful skepticism lies in the questions you ask because the goal is not to create suspicion, but to uncover motive.

Government agencies also made the news for a range of ethics failures. These, unfortunately, were less well covered, as they did not carry the same level of drama. Additionally, it required a deeper understanding of where and how the failures in these agencies occurred, which is a difficult task to cover accurately in a news cycle.

Whether a company is publicly traded company or not, it is the leader that owns the fact and the reputation of that organization. Two things make up the “fact” referenced here; one is what is true, and the other is the perception of those who use the products and services the company provides. This fact is the key ingredient in a company’s reputation.

I define the word fact for this book in this way for the simple reason that people inevitably interpret events and data, and the intent is to prevent the inevitable internal argument the readers of this book may have about facts as they pertain to being honest or dishonest. In a business environment, the goal is not to add things up as you would a shelf filled with shot glasses, or to count the number of baseball caps you own with team logos. To a leader, gathering facts is about establishing the right course of action, identifying the risks, and then acting, and this helps define what is true and what is not. The goal is not fact-finding – it is finding the right action to take.

It is an established truth that many companies hold a sterling reputation over many years and continue to do so today. They have storied histories and have a significant place in our culture. However, even they have a mixed account when it comes to the issues I present in this book. These iconic companies and many others grow increasingly worried because these issues grow increasingly consequential.

Ethics and integrity failures run rampant through many government agencies and departments. Twenty-five or thirty years ago few government entities were seen as either shoddy or dishonest; those that were offered little doubt about their incompetence. Among the more notorious were, and remain even today, the Veterans Administration, and Housing & Urban Development.

Now the reverse is true. Very few government agencies at the federal level are viewed in a positive light. The tragedy few recognize is that unethical conduct ,and combined with a pervasive lack of integrity throughout many agencies created a fertile breeding ground for corruption and dishonesty.

A significant reason for the difference between how companies and government agencies respond to ethics and integrity failures is that companies have stakeholders that have the power to effect changes in an organization after uncovering egregious behaviors. CEO’s, company officers, and members of company boards have found themselves in courtrooms defending their actions.

Government agencies and departments also have stakeholders, but they, primarily the public, have limited power to effect change inside the government. It is why it is easier for agencies to hide wrongdoing and for people engaging in egregious behavior to avoid facing the consequences of their actions.

Leaders own the honesty or dishonesty that permeates their organizations. There is no middle ground. My latest book challenges the leader to see where he or she is failing to take ownership of honesty. It provides a “blueprint” for both thought and action, and guides the reader through the range of issues that need to identified, confronted, corrected, strengthened, and made more precise.

In my previous book, I discuss how leaders live lives where their time is committed weeks, and sometimes, months in advance, and the mortgaging of a leader’s time in this way can lead them to make decisions “in the moment.” The leader is where he or she is because of his/her skills, the ability to see the big picture, and the leader’s unique ability to know when to make decisions. Yet, these skills are not infallible.

Even a good leader makes mistakes that result from those in the moment decisions. This book picks up on that theme and discusses where and how those consequences may make their impact.

Savielly Tartakower was a chess grandmaster in the 1020s and 1930s. He was also known for his aphorisms, and once, in a quiet moment before a chess game, he looked at chessboard set up for a game and said: “The mistakes are all there, waiting to be made.”

For many leaders who walk into their offices at the start of the day, the issues they will face are like that chessboard, and the mistakes are waiting. Far too many leaders walk into the office at the start of a new day with the same mindset that governed their decision-making the previous day and the day before that.

The reason companies fail to keep up ethical and integrity standards and, not surprisingly, often fail more than once is that they did not master the change process required to stop the unethical practices. Making the kind of changes needed to re-establish and work within an ethical framework, demands something very close to a re-engineering process.

Some twenty-five years ago, Dr. Michael Hammer and James Champy noted this same results in their book Re-engineering the Corporation. They said that off all the companies surveyed, more than 50% of the companies failed to make the changes identified as necessary. They went further and noted that those companies failing to re-engineer to the degree needed made no gains at all and wound up exactly where they started.

The goal of the book is to prevent that kind of failure from happening. The approach outlined within its pages encourages leaders and their key staff to look at step changes, repeated and reinforced at regular but periodic intervals. In this way, ethical foundations necessary for long-term success will take root organically.