W. Edwards Deming, of Total Quality fame, used to say that leaders had 80% of the power and responsibility in an organization. He’s right, and ethics is no exception. It’s become common practice for leaders to throw away their power in ethical situations and claim “it’s the employees fault.” Not only is that inaccurate, its ineffective, generates fear (on all sides), and is a cop out, to boot.

It’s impossible to control another person. More to the point why would you want to? Yet we seem to use training as a method of “control” assuming employees will do what they are trained to do. Training and educating employees is obviously a good thing, but imparting information, while useful, is hardly the whole story. The hope that once people know the “right” thing to do, that they will do it is blind faith. The feeling that since the employees know what to do (they’ve been trained) I’m absolved of all responsibility is equally vacuous.

Ethics is not about control, it’s about relationship. Leadership chooses control so it doesn’t have to be in relationship. The message is: employees should care, but we (leadership) don’t have to.

The heart of the matter is relationship – pun intended. People do things because they care. If given free choice people do things that matter to them. Historically we’ve called caring “motivation,” but that short-circuits the process. Motivation has devolved into a WIFIM (what’s in it for me) game. That game colludes with the blame and manipulation game, carrots and sticks or reward and punishment game that doesn’t address, but allows ignorance of why people care.

Even from a WIFIM perspective, rewarding someone for telling the truth by firing them, hardly promotes honesty. Calling someone a whistleblower because leadership wouldn’t listen to what they had to say and then shunning them or firing them, hardly constitutes a WIFIM for the courageous soul who acted in service of the company and society at large.

No, we’ve got it all wrong. Leadership is responsible for the ethics in the organization and they have the power to ensure ethical behavior in 98% of all situations. How, you ask, is this possible?

It all boils down to relationship, really. How you relate to your company (friend or foe), your employees (friend or foe), your clients or customers (friend or foe), your neighborhood/community (friend or foe) and yourself (friend or foe). You can’t just answer “friend” and leave it there. How do all of these “others” and you, yourself, know you are a friend? Exactly what do you do that assures all of the interested parties of the esteem you hold them in?

The truth of your relationship is in your feelings. Anxious, fretful, angry, resentful, frustrated, disdainful, distrustful, disgusted are not friendly emotions.

Let’s talk about employees for a moment. You, as leader, want them to care about the company, the product and service quality, and the customers as much as you do. The good news is that most of them do. The bad news is all the barriers put in their way to prevent them from acting on their caring. Now many leaders translate “caring for employees” into: benefits, vacations, insurance, retirement and the like. Those certainly have a place in this relationship. It’s nice for employees to know they have some ability to take care of their personal needs. All of these things cost money and here is where employers balk. However the good news is that what really makes employees care is almost free. It costs nothing, but does take time. What really makes the biggest difference is the ability of both employee and employer to listen to each other. Isn’t that what relationship is all about anyway?

Ah, listening, easy to say and very hard to do. Both the good and the bad news is that this is a shared responsibility. The leadership power is the willingness to take control and create an atmosphere, a culture of respectful inquiry. This includes openness to dialogue (not discussion), education on the human dynamics of mindsets, education on situations where the results don’t match the intention, with the corresponding skill development to transform these barriers.

Organizations live the value of respect through actively practicing engaged listening, and by creating structural supports to ensure and practice this. These structures look like exploratory meetings, focus groups or regular dialogue sessions. These will create a culture of respect, caring and openness that will not only enable ethical behavior, but improve the bottom line as well.

You can gage the amount of caring you and your employees feel by noticing how excited you and they are about coming into work. Look at your turnover rate, tardiness, sick leave and grievances – if you are unionized. People don’t like being where they feel they are not wanted. Are you excited and joyful at the prospect of going to work? How about your employees?

I have a wonderful video of a factory worker who was required or “forced” by leadership in his view, to be involved in a process improvement effort. He was angry and resentful about having to participate. Once he got in to it and learned that his ideas had value, everything changed. He said, “ You sort’a get hooked on this improvement thing. I’ve not missed a day the two years since the project started, and I’ve never done that in the 17 years I’ve worked here.”

Engage your employees. Care about what they think. That means acting on their ideas and saying “thanks.” Care about the skills, perceptions and wisdom they possess and they’ll care about you and the company.

Author's Bio: 

Kathryn brings her serial entrepreneur, teaching and spiritual practice background to her work helping leaders and teams create and navigate the desired future. In her 22 years working with change in organizations she has learned the secret that effective organizations are ethical organizations. Working with leaders and teams to address the need to think differently about their problems, she has been instrumental in co-creating significant shifts in organizations. Her passion is creating communities that generate enlightened business practices.

Among her many client contributions are the Future Search strategic planning sessions she lead for the Department of Public Works in San Francisco. These sessions allowed the leadership to envision the future, plan, build teams and implement changes that brought the Department from being a thorn in the Mayor’s side to the 11th most improved in the nation within eighteen months. Working with the leadership team she facilitated their creation of internal and external structures to improve participation, communication and service; the development of teams to measure and improve the quality of service; improve the leaderships ability to work together; improve the service to both other government customers and the residents; improve vendor relationships and internal leadership capacity through the use of customized scorecards. This was done without creating friction with the Union.

The uses of her unique assessment for better understanding culture lead to an ease of implementation and clarity of relationship that accelerated the pace of change without generating friction or resistance. Her values assessments lead to rich discussions that uncover hidden conflicts that could generate ethical and legal issues for her client firms.

By combining her quality and measurement background with an understanding of the role relationships play in getting work done, she balances her approach between focusing on process and facilitating improved cultural dynamics, always with an eye on the impact on business results.

Kathryn has a Master’s degree in Organizational Development and Transformation and has done doctorate work at Saybrook Graduate School in the areas of systems thinking and organizational development.