There are a host of practical reasons to teach leaders about good communication, better listening, teamwork, win/win conflict resolution and the like but there are just as many compelling ethical reasons to do so. Yes, team based leadership leads to better performance, greater sustainability, more ROI, and so forth. The evidence is compelling. But, even if that were not so I believe that we should keep in mind that most business organizations are social systems where human beings spend a significant portion of their lives. The leaders of those organizations also have an ethical and moral imperative to treat their employees with dignity and fairness. Also, as important societal institutions, they have obligations to be good neighbors in the communities in which they operate. But, there is also and ethical side to the skills often taught in leadership training workshops.
Organizations are human systems. As such, they operate according to a set of values. Those values may be explicit or implicit. Many of the rules about what is O.K. and not O.K. are unspoken and learned by team members only by accident. Often, the team member learns what is unacceptable only when he or she violates the norm. This kind of backhanded learning happens most often in those organizations where the values are left unspoken or, even more disturbing, where the stated values are in contradiction to the actual values. In a factory making consumer electronics, there were posters all over that stated, “Quality is number one.” There were memos, announcements, training classes in which team members were told that quality always comes first. “Don’t pass along defects. Stop the line. Get it right the first time. Don’t try to inspect the quality in.” But, the only time anyone got into trouble was when they missed the schedule. Anyone who stopped the line was scolded by their supervisor. Departments that finished jobs ahead of schedule were rewarded even if there was a lot of rework. So, the stated value was, “Quality comes first,” but the actual value was “Schedule comes first.” There are countless examples of this in businesses. It is easy to assign blame and say the leaders are being unethical. That may be, but it is often more complicated than that. Organizations have a history of doing things a certain way and a few enthusiastic managers who want to change the culture may have more challenges than they anticipated.
There are, unfortunately, countless such examples. But, most instances of unethical leadership are not so massive or newsworthy as Enron or the Bernie Madoff scandal. More typically, it is the supervisor who gives her friend a prime vacation day or promotes a sycophant. It is the manager who promises a fair hearing of a new idea but ignores all your requests for an appointment. It is the team leader who embarrasses a team member in front of the whole department. It is the day-to-day breach of contract between leader and team member that takes the largest toll. It is those thousands of little abuses of power that each of us has endured at some point in our careers.
One of my clients got a new position in which he had responsibility to investigate the “human factors” contributing to any documentable incident at his nuclear power plant. One of his first assignments concerned an injury in which an employee fell from a scaffolding during some minor repairs. He dutifully gathered information and noted that the employee, a supervisor, had been working very long shifts for several days and that fatigue could be a factor in the incident. His manager refused to include his concern in the report. Fatigue may or may not have been the cause of the fall but it was certainly one of several plausible contributing factors. No one will ever know for sure. This was a fundamental betrayal of the agreement between management and this team member. The stated value was, “Investigate all the possible human factors that could have contributed to the incident.” The actual value was, “Investigate only those factors that will not make management look bad.” A pattern of such actions will, of course, lead to cynicism and a profound lack of trust in the organization.
Ethical Communication in Leadership Training
So, what is ethical leadership and how can it be addressed in leadership training? There are, of course, all of the normal ethical considerations that we associate with good leadership: honesty, fairness, keeping promises, setting a good example, hard work, willingness to admit mistakes, and so forth. These are attributes that are important in all dimensions of our lives, not just when we are in a leadership position. Certainly, these are fair game for discussion in leadership training. But, there are a number of subtler ethical considerations that could be explored in some depth: How many secrets should you keep? How much should you reveal about yourself? How much time should you spend listening to team members’ concerns about non-work related issues? What is the appropriate balance between work and home life? How do you go about evaluating team members’ performance?
The possible points of discussion are many and we can’t go into all of them here but I do want to address one that is often overlooked: the ethics of our communication. This is not as simple as “saying what you mean,” or “telling the truth.” It is about being congruent; your verbal matches your nonverbal. It is about avoiding unwarranted assumptions, conclusions, and judgments. It is about finding and making time to listen when a team member needs you. It is about making a real effort to find mutually satisfying solutions when there are conflicts. It is also about dealing fairly and openly with differences in values.
Don’t pretend that everything is O.K. when it is not. Most problems just get worse when you put off talking about them. If a team member (colleague, manager, supplier) is doing something that interferes with your needs, tell them. Withholding that information is disrespectful. In spite of the fact that they will know something is wrong by observing your nonverbal communication, choosing not to put your concerns into words communicates, “You can’t handle it. You are either mean or weak.” It is better for everyone, when you discuss it openly. Good communication skills become very important when you do choose to talk about it. Avoid the tendency to assign blame or infer negative intentions or motives when talking about it. Good leadership training will help participants learn to confront with I-language and I-messages that are more fact based and less judgmental. In addition to the practical advantages of confronting problems, it is also a right and wrong issue. It is less hurtful to discuss a problem like adults than to hold a grudge and risk damaging the relationship.
When a team member needs for you to listen, don’t fill up the time with talking. Listen! Avoid interrogation, advising, sympathizing, joking, criticizing, etc. Just listen for a while. Effective leadership training will help participants learn better ways to listen, including active listening. The benefit of active listening is that it provides evidence to the sender that you are not only making an effort, but that you are truly comprehending their thoughts and emotions. Good active listening often leads to productive problem solving and, in the best of circumstances, increased independence on the part of the sender. They often are able to solve the problem on their own. It is also potentially a “learning opportunity” for the team member who may increase their confidence in their ability to solve future problems. Again, failure to comprehend when a team member is truly upset can translate into not caring. Find the time to listen. It matters.
Often, when there are conflicts, we assume that someone must win and the other must lose. Or, that there must be a compromise. The truly ethical leader will make a genuine effort to help team members find solutions that fully satisfy the needs of all parties. The tendency is to argue about solutions before really understanding what the parties really need. The kinds of communication skills learned in leadership training are a great help to participants who are willing to do the hard work it takes to equitably resolve conflicts, whether between themselves and others or between two team members. I concede that not all conflicts can be so resolved, but most can. And even in those cases where true win/win solutions cannot be found, the act of truly making the effort makes the resulting necessary compromises more palatable.
Value Collisions Can Test Ethical Leadership
Sometimes disputes go beyond simple conflicts of needs. There are times when deeply held ideas about right and wrong come into play. Different cultures, religions, ethnic backgrounds, country of origin, politics, etc. may surface in ways that are potentially very destructive if not dealt with skillfully. While many of these kinds of conflicts are not really resolvable, there are many ways to create healthy environments in which people can work together productively even when such differences exist. In short, the leader can set the example of how to communicate with those who are different. She can say, “We will learn to work together as adults who respect one another despite our differences. We are grown ups. We are committed to doing what is right for our organization, our team, one another and for ourselves.”
Many of these ethical issues are about the leader’s choice to pursue a moral work environment, but it is also about learning the skills to help achieve that. If you were hired to do a job and discovered that you lacked a certain technical skill, it would not only be smart to learn that skill but it would be the ethical thing to do. If you become the leader of a group and find that you lack some of the skills to make you an effective leader, it is not only smart to learn those skills, it is the right thing to do.
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