Scratch the surface of most companies, and you’ll find the same scenario. Stressed out workers want to do the right thing but are frustrated by a lack of direction, mixed messages from their leaders, inefficient decision-making, confusion, wasted productivity and internal politicking. How many people struggle to make it through the year, worn out by October and yearning for a quick respite during Christmas only to repeat the cycle the coming January?
Comments like “I can’t get any work done in the office because of the distractions” reflect something greater than merely increased workload – they forewarn of a broken system. The same dynamics that caused the breakdown of global markets in 2008 are at work, affecting the trust between companies and their staff. This can be measured by the amount of gossiping, venting and complaining that goes on under the surface. Most leaders are too weak to address this because they are scared of conflict, and don’t know how to build the trust that resolves it, creating a vicious cycle. Organisational ethics will restore trust because ethical leadership demands that issued such a lack of resources, inappropriate pressure, mixed messages, lack of oversight, wasted productivity and internal politicking are addressed. All of these behaviours are as unethical as the phone hacking conducted by The News of the World in the UK and the selling bad mortgages that cause the global financial crisis in the US.
The behaviour that caused stress, absenteeism, confusion and disorganisation may not be illegal, but they are certainly unethical. Employees need to realise they don’t have to be compromised by this kind of conduct. Companies must earn and maintain the trust of their employees by acting with integrity to get to the truth of what’s causing the problem, and fixing it. This is essential to both rebuild trust that is the foundation of our system, and strengthening it through effective processes that sustain it.
Every employee deserves an environment where he can develop, flourish, succeed and contribute with a sense of purpose and passion. No-one enjoys working for a company they don’t like, respect, or trust. Business ethics starts with companies engaging their employees in an environment of trust, transparency, fairness and objectivity to encourage diversity in thinking, collaboration, productivity and innovation. This is the foundation on which employees can build a purposeful, satisfying and successful career. It is common sense that people need a free and engaging work culture to prosper. 71% of employees in Fortune 500 companies support following ethics standards, and the percentage of engaged employees rises with the strength of the ethics culture: from a low of 15% in ethically weak companies to a high of 99% in ethically strong corporations (Centre, 2012). On a fundamental level, ethics is about how companies treat their people, their customers and their stakeholders on a daily basis. It sends a clear message of the values to be encouraged or eliminated; both internally and externally.
Ethical leadership is far from soft. Soft are today’s average managers who avoid conflict and hide issues under a cloud of secrecy. In Margaret Heffernan’s Dare to Disagree TED Talk, she cites that 85% of managers avoid conflict where they should be advocating good disagreement as a path to progress (Tube). Ethical leadership is the courage to confront the truths that companies must face about their own operations, and their own customer needs in order to restore trust and facilitate growth. Dissatisfied employees and customers are a repository of truth. Ethical companies talk to them to find ways to uphold core values and meet customer needs. Increasing ethical behaviour also results in more workforce energy going into the company’s interest than into playing games. These are the values with which companies will succeed in The Trust Future.
By Omer Soker
This column is an exclusive, unpublished excerpt from an upcoming book on business ethics entitled ‘The Trust Future’.