Competing ethics screw up organizational culture.

Besides running a company that ethically motivates people (so that doing the right thing becomes their organizational culture), I teach ethics in college. If you’ve ever endured an ethics class, you probably found the subject simultaneously boring yet provocative, and ethical decisions that seem obvious at first become slippery as facts appear. My first ethics class as a student began with pre-class chatter on what we thought we’d learn. As I recall, the race between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter was big, and am I right that the campaign carried ethical conundrums as incendiary as what it meant to “American” and “patriotic” (sound familiar)?

It was a hot debate until the professor arrived and threw cold water on us. We would study ancient Greeks, enlightened Europeans, and postmodern American and French philosophers. We would not discuss ethical issues of our day, and certainly not the election. I wondered how my professor could turn something that was interesting minutes before into something as boring as the periodic table.

Cant you make it easy?

Now as then, most of us want someone to tell us what to do. We think we know, but are only sure that ancient Greeks cannot help us. We crave binary ethical right and wrong, patriotic or treasonous, work or welfare, Reagan or Carter. What’s the ethical, the right, or at least the more right, thing to do? It’s almost never that simple; there still a lot of gray in the world.

Ethically charged elections prove that one person may be comfortable with decisions leaning toward one end of the spectrum while an otherwise appreciated coworker leans very far in the opposite direction. (This is less fun when the opposite-leaner is a close relative, and even another degree less fun when a spouse leans away). Each of us creates our own set of ethical boundaries, and none of us appreciates someone else’s adjustments. When two otherwise close people try to discuss their varied opinions, what usually happens? Someone claims their morally superiority, and we get friction, anger, fighting, offense, even broken relationships. Ethical boundaries often stretch relationships, do they not?

Organizational messiness

All this ethics stuff—what’s right or wrong, the way ethics stretch relationships, how we avoid or engage issues—affects how organizational culture develops and is sustained. At your place, do people debate issues civilly, passively resist ethical engagement, avoid conflict, or cat-scratch one another into submission? How much agreement do you observe on ethical basics like how the company conducts its business? How would you go about protecting the good and changing the bad parts of your culture?

People underestimate how much effort it takes to create the culture they want and how fragile their ethical culture becomes as it ages.
— Dr. Jack Allen

Our clients want to preserve or create an ethical organizational culture, and they have an idea what it looks like. People (always) underestimate how much effort it takes to create the culture they want and how fragile their ethical culture becomes as it ages.

Peer pressure is the key

Maybe you also see people shift their ethical boundaries due to peer pressure. Peer pressure can enhance your culture or it can mold your culture to an unrecognizable image.

Most of us crave being liked more than holding our ground. Having friends (and the possibility of love) does seem to be more important than dry old ethics, doesn’t it? Yet ethical decisions cement relationships, don’t they? It’s complicated, I know. What one may or may not find acceptable to attract and keep a relationship going—that is the driver that changes organizational culture, even a decades old culture.

Work relationships carry ethical baggage. A coworker once told me that he kept all work relationships at the surface level to avoid emotional entanglements. His strategy worked for three decades, then started to crack as the Millennium dawned (pun intended). He lost sleep as coworkers’ feedback continually insisted that he was cold, unfeeling, distant, and dictatorial. His opinion on what it meant to be professional banged against what his coworkers thought it meant to be nice. Because he was high in the organization, he was tolerated. He was also a very lonely man who caused talented people to leave because of his aloof behavior. His direct reports thought he was uncaring and unkind. Had the organization paid attention to their culture as it changed, he’d have changed or been fired. Instead, he did a lot of damage.

Most people bend under the weight

Many of us fight for the ethical side of day-to-day things, but many more of us simply bend to the will of whichever tribe we’re hoping to please. You may lead an organization besieged by ethical change. What’s your plan to end up with the ethical culture you prefer?

Ethics are the vitamins that grow your organizational culture. If you want strong culture, build strong, shared, ethical boundaries that encourage doing the right thing.