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Jim Now

Building Ethical Expectations Begins With You

When trouble comes, trust in leadership is often the first casualty. I define trust as the absence of fear, because when trust is severely damaged or gone, it is replaced by uncertainty and doubt. Sustaining trust requires the systematic participation and example through communication and behavior by leadership. Even in the most adverse circumstances, we expect leaders to be trustworthy and act ethically. We are disappointed when they fail.

The ethical organizations I work with have leaders at every level who strive to meet the expectations of their colleagues. The most serious problems in an organization start with small and easily observed, but seldom reported, corner-cuttings.

This is why building and maintaining ethical expectations begins with you. When ethical lapses go unreported, they accumulate into even bigger problems.

Ethical Expectations

Leaders must recognize the ethical expectations of everyone inside and outside their organization:

  • Find the truth as soon as possible. Tell it and act on it immediately.
  • Raise the tough questions. This includes posing and answering questions yet to be asked or that can affect others.
  • Vocalize core business/organizational values and ideals. Most core values are a set of ideas from a management golf outing, brought in on the back of a clubhouse napkin, then printed and posted without another word. The values and ideals of a business are what employees and others bring to work.
  • Walk the talk. Be accessible; help people understand the organization within the context of its values and ideals.
  • Expect and enforce ethical leadership. People are watching and counting and know when there are lapses in ethics. When bad things happen in good organizations, it’s those occasional lapses that deepen the troubles.
  • Preserve and protect ethical pathways to the top of the organization. Constantly be on guard for situations where ethical processes can be compromised, especially among executives who are on upward career trajectories.
  • Be cheerleaders, models and teachers of ethical behavior. Ethical behavior builds and maintains trust, especially as a leader of an organization.
  • Know that values are as important as success or 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 that puts values on the same level as profits, there is often more loyalty and support because it is sacrificing profits for principle.

One of the ongoing challenges to building and maintaining trust and ensuring positive relationships with customers, allies, colleagues, government and employees is what it takes to establish trust. It is easier to recognize the pattern of behaviors and attitudes that damage trust, or bring credibility and ethical behavior into question.

Trust is a fragile, magical substance like the lignin in trees — it’s the glue that holds the fiber of relationships together. It is the most vulnerable agent in a relationship. And trust is the product of ethical behavior. So, what are the components of ethical behavior?

  • Trust: Truth is built on the absence of fear — a feeling of reliability that adverse situations have less impact, or can be pre-empted or remediated faster if there is a trusted relationship
  • Candor: Truth that is delivered promptly, plus the facts and some perspective; reflecting the value of observations on the same set of circumstances and facts
  • Credibility: Always conferred by others whose past behavior, track record and accomplishments warrant it
  • Integrity: Adherence to a code of positive personal values by people, products and companies, with the attributes of credibility, candor and sincerity
  • Sympathy: The sincere verbalization of concern, regret, embarrassment and helpfulness and being truly sorry for someone who is experiencing pain
  • Empathy and Compassion: Actions speak louder than words — do good, and let that good speak for itself.


Published in Public Relations Tactics, September 2016.

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