Readiness to Do Right

When it comes to ethics, we all know what we should do. So why don't we?
November 12, 2008
Bob Stone
By Bob Stone  |  Contributor
Bob Stone is a GOVERNING contributor. He consults, teaches ethical leadership and leading change, and serves as a member of the governing council and faculty of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University, Long Beach.
Mick Ukleja
By Mick Ukleja  |  Contributor
Mick Ukleja is a GOVERNING contributor. He helped found the Ukleja Center For Ethical Leadership at California State University, Long Beach.

Why it is that so many of the nicest people aren't as ethical as they think they are? And why, when it comes to our own behavior, do we sometimes disappoint? We have the moral intelligence to know right from wrong. But, sometimes, when faced with a tough choice, we know what we should do and we know how to do it, but we don't do it.

We may act instinctively, or angrily, or we may go along with the group, unaware of the triggers to those actions. Your authors believe this can be changed. Good people with good moral values can ready themselves to act and react ethically.

We've defined six actions that will strengthen our ethical readiness and help us to do the right thing instinctively. They are:

Bob Stone continues to illuminate the connection between strong ethics and good management. Stone provides us, once again, with some guideposts. But, more important, he reminds us that good leaders approach ethics as a critical part of their management strategy.

- Stephen Goldsmith

Embrace your purpose: Clarity of purpose leads to clarity of conduct. If you're not clear about your non-negotiable values you'll be unsure where you stand when faced with ethical uncertainty. As Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else." If you don't know where you're going ethically, you might wind up someplace you'll regret.

Test your excuses: "It's not my fault." "I didn't have time." "Everybody else was doing it." It is human nature to make excuses, but our excuses deprive us of the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Two minutes of brutal honesty can save months of regret. It helps to get feedback from brutally honest people who will tell you the truth, who will say, "STOP!" or "What are you doing?" High performance leaders always surround themselves with people who will tell them the unvarnished truth and help them test their excuses.

Harness your moods: A basic human frailty is that we allow our moods to master us rather than we mastering them. You are probably a lot like us: sometimes you've sped through a red light, cut off another driver, procrastinated, or shut your mind to others because you're in a bad mood. It's easy, especially when under pressure, to let our moods control our actions. The more intense the pressure, the more likely we are to violate our own sense of what's right. First, be aware of your moods, especially when stressed. Then harness them.

Insist on integrity: Everyone has an integrity gap -- the distance between what we say we believe and how we actually behave. The key is to continually develop our integrity so that the gap lessens and our beliefs and our behaviors become more closely aligned. The successful person is intentional about closing the integrity gap. Integrity requires giving and demanding fairness in every transaction. Integrity means that when you say you are going to do something, you do it. A development company that is one of our clients has as its credo, "Do The Right Thing, Do It Right, Do It Right Now!" Living with integrity isn't easy, but living successfully without it is impossible.

Cultivate trust: Trust is different from integrity. Integrity is something you have, trust is something others have in you, or you have in them. In an organization, trust is an asset as valuable as its buildings, its equipment and its intellectual capital. Trust is the key to a company's reputation and therefore, its public or shareholder value. People prefer to do business with companies that they trust. DePaul University researchers compared the financial performance of the top 100 "Best Corporate Citizens" selected by Business Ethics magazine to the remainder of the S&P 500 companies. The average performance of the ethical companies was ten percentage points higher. Cultivate trust by acting in a trustworthy way and trust others to do the same-until they have a good reason not to. The Golden Rule applies in the area of trust as well.

Self-differentiate: Self-differentiation is clarity about who you are as distinct from those to whom you're connected. Failure to self-differentiate promotes groupthink, the careless willingness to let the group do your thinking for you. It's a powerful force that allows, or causes, people with a high level of ethical knowledge to commit small wrongs, like serving beer to under-legal-age students; or huge wrongs, like torturing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Self-differentiate: don't ignore the group, but be aware enough to know where the group ends and you begin.

These six actions will help strengthen the connection between the ethical knowledge we have and our actions. They will make it instinctive for us to "walk the talk." High-impact ethical leaders do these six things to strengthen their own ethical behavior and that of the people around them.