My world is one of organizational trouble and troubled leadership. One of the serious collateral damages to trouble is trust loss in leadership due to often intentional ethical lapses. I define trust as the absence of fear because when trust is severely damaged or gone, it is replaced by fear, uncertainty and doubt. There is a strategy for sustaining trust which is sensible, constructive, purposeful and effective, but requires the systematic participation and example through communication behavior by leadership. Even in the most adverse circumstances, we expect leaders to be trustworthy and act ethically. We are surprised and disappointed when they fail.
Meeting Ethical Expectations
Leaders must implicitly and explicitly recognize the ethical expectations by everyone inside and by their constituencies outside their organization. Focus groups, polls and interviews reveal an important list of these ethical expectations:
1. Find the truth as soon as possible: Tell that truth and act on it immediately.
2. Promptly raise the tough questions and answer them thoughtfully: This includes asking and answering questions yet to be asked or thought of by those who will be affected by whatever the circumstance is.
3. Teach by parable: Emphasizing wrong-way/right-way options.
4. Vocalize core business values and ideals constantly: Most core values are a set of ideas thought up on a management golf outing, brought in on the back of a clubhouse napkin, then printed and posted without another word being spoken. The values and ideals of a business are what employees and others bring to work every day.
5. Walk the talk: Be accessible; help people understand the organization within the context of its values and ideals at every opportunity.
6. Help, expect and enforce ethical leadership: People are watching; people are counting; people know when there are lapses in ethics causing trust to be broken. When bad things happen in good organizations, it’s those occasional lapses that deepen the troubles.
7. Preserve, protect, defend and foster ethical pathways to the top of the organization: Constantly identify, explain, explore and warn about situations where ethical processes can be compromised on the way, especially among executives who are on upward career trajectories.
8. Be a cheerleader, model and teacher of ethical behavior: Ethical behavior builds and maintains trust. In fact, to have trust in an organization requires that its leaders act ethically constantly.
9. Make values more important than profits: Most people seem to enjoy working more when they are with organizations they respect, people they trust and leadership they can rely on. Wherever you find an organization or company that puts values on the same level as profits, there is often even more loyalty and support because companies who do this sacrifice profits for principle. Everybody notices.
Recovering from Ethically Damaging Situations
There is a definite pattern of recovery behaviors that helps leadership reestablish trust following a trust-busting, reputation-redefining circumstance. The message is, when these situations occur, get the following recovery strategies working immediately, and things will get better fairly quickly.
1. Talk now: Silence is toxic. Use social media to get information out immediately. 2. Act in everyone’s best interest, rather than stalling.
3. Stop producing victims and critics: Change your behavior; change your language; change your vocabulary, and recognize the power victims have to further damage your reputation and trusted relationships.
4. Build followership: Reconnect, reestablish and reconvene those who are critical to building your leadership and trust.
5. Build trust at every opportunity: Trust is a behavior; trust must be vocalized, and trust must be explained and expected.
6. Rebuild and maintain your base: Focus on those closest to you – employees, retirees, their families – as well as those with who the organization has relationships.
7. Manage the victim dimension: Victims and critics live forever. They are always with you. Pay attention to them, literally, for the rest of their lives. Failure to do this often reignites their victimization, their criticisms and your untrustworthiness.
8. Manage your own destiny: Everything said, written, broadcast or otherwise created about you and your organization lives forever. You need a strategy to correct, clarify and comment on these things. Failure to manage your own destiny leaves it to somebody else who is ready to do it for you.
Your management recovery mantra: If it’s simple, sensible, sincere, constructive and positive, do it now. Forget the rest. The greatest ethical leadership responsibility of all is to recognize, talk about, and lead those whose careers are advancing rapidly and the urge to act unethically in small ways happens every day.
James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, BEPS Emeritus