Three ways ethical leadership can promote culture change

Three ways ethical leadership can promote culture change

In the 21st century, when the subject of leadership is broached, there is an instant association with equality and diversity, inclusion, wellbeing, mental health and employee welfare. One thing that we seem to hear less about is ethics and morality. 

Of course, you could argue that the aforementioned list is a series of ethics, yet this is not the case. They are subjects that arise from ethical leadership and how an ethical leader maintains a working culture that nurtures and fosters these ethics. 

A concept, not a practice

Moreover, when the topic of ethics and morality is raised, it is usually when discussing the concepts rather than the daily practice of such behaviour. To do this, we need to have the awareness and courage to look our ethical values straight in the eye: the way we think, communicate and behave and the impact this has on self and others.

Our ethical sense is guided by our inner compass, made up of our conscience, intuition and values, that tell us when what we think, say or do is right and good for self, others and the world. But a word of caution here: ethics is not about being good or bad which leads to unhealthy shame, i.e. ‘I’m a bad person’.

Ethical leadership lifts the leader above their self-interest to do things that are not just good for them. 

At the organisational level, ethics manifest when the company values and attitudes are lived by all and when they bind leaders, managers and staff together as a whole. It’s when collective responsibility is taken for the common and greater good. 

But what happens when leaders want to lead more ethically but the company culture is toxic, where employees are squeezed to the limit, get little support and have no voice? The absence of ethical leadership leads to non-inclusivity, disrespect, dishonesty, and abusive management.

The question is: Can ethical leaders make a difference in company culture? And if so how?

Generally speaking, the answer is yes but it’s not easy. It takes courage, faith, perseverance, self-kindness and compassion. Except of course when the workplace is toxic to the point of being harmful, in which case one must remove oneself immediately. 

Here are three vital things that help to practice ethics against company culture:

1. Taking responsibility for one’s actions

2. Remember your actions as a leader

Thinking, communicating and behaving – however big or small – have consequences, always, because we are interconnected and interdependent. When your actions come from a positive state of mind such as openness, curiosity, non-judgment, kindness, compassion and generosity, you have a positive impact on yourself and others. The opposite is also true. When your actions come from a negative mindset of greed, aversion, pride and grandiosity, it’s harmful to yourself and others. 

3. Remembering the Circle of Influence (see image)

In the middle of the circle is you – a leader, in control of your actions, mindset and attitudes. Around you – your boss, peers and employees – those whom you can’t control but can have influence over. A positive mindset and attitude such as non-judgement, openness, kindness and compassion are infectious. When you practice and demonstrate them for long enough they rub onto your colleagues. A kind word, showing interest and genuinely asking people how they are, listening to the answer, creates safety and trust.

Gandhi famously said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ It’s what he modelled and he gained many followers because his positive mindset and attitude were very attractive. People experienced the positive effect Gandhi had on them and wanted to be like him. 

The opposite is known as the broken window theory. It’s the concept that each problem that goes unattended in a given environment affects people’s attitudes toward that environment and leads to more problems. A well-known and grim example of this is Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) because of the shattered glass that littered the streets after the vandalism and destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and homes. 

Ethics are a practice. Leaders who practice ethics in the workplace can be humble and own their mistakes and shortcomings. They don’t just look at practical solutions but at themselves, their inner life and their inner skills. They demonstrate a learning mindset vs a failure or blame mindset. They wouldn’t criticise themselves or others by saying: ‘Why did I do this or why did you do this?’ They would ask: ‘What happened that this mistake happened or this task didn’t happen? What was going on for me, for you?’

Aristotle defines ethics as a practice that requires contemplation (Sustainable Hedonism by Orsolya Lelkes).

Here are some tips on how to practice ethics against company culture:

1. Practice ethics

Find some areas within your workplace where you can practice ethics. For example, within your team or department, in 1:1 meetings with your team members or with trusted peer leaders, you can model inviting feedback, listening and learning from it as well as making time and space for reflection on one’s actions and whether one’s ways of thinking (views, biases, beliefs), communication and behaviour were helpful or harmful to self and others.

2. Speak up!

Seize opportunities when you can speak up for yourself and your team in line with your values of how you want to be as a leader. Always speak from your own experience vs blaming others. Chances are much greater that you will be seen and heard.

3. Make time for reflection

Do this a few times a week to remember what’s important to you, and your actions and to learn from them. You could find a buddy leader and meet up regularly to check in with each other on your ethics and celebrate your positive actions, the ones you want to learn from and do differently next time. This cannot affect others in the workplace.

4. Create reflection time for your team

Do the same with your team. Make time at team meetings to go around and hear from each team member about something they did or said that they rejoice in and something where they felt their actions fell below their standard. 

Leading ethically requires a brave and sturdy heart that can love your imperfections, can listen, speak up, hear feedback, make amends and learn. Leading ethically requires courage. Without courage no other virtues are possible. Leading ethically has nothing to do with sentimentalism or weakness and all to do with seeing ourselves and others as they really are, it has all to do with how we choose to show up to ourselves and others. 

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