Developing an ethical culture in 2021

I have a personal project that is in motion right now.

I say in motion because I’m not truly taking any action. I’m researching, I’m planning, I’m preparing but I’m not pulling the trigger on any action that would provide me vital feedback on the viability of my project.

And that’s because humans are very good at avoiding criticism and delaying failure. That fear of failure is linked to our fear of being an outcast, which, for the longest time, threatened our survival. So even today, if we are not good at doing something or simply don’t know if we will be good at it, we avoid doing it. We don’t want to risk being criticized or made fun of.

That same fear prevents many managers from addressing ethical dilemmas at work. They have little or no practice discussing ethical issues. Their boss doesn’t do it. It wasn’t part of their classes in college – or it was a stand-alone class that seemed unrelated to the core topics. What if they start an ethical conversation and no one on their team jumps in? Or worse, their boss disagrees with their stand?

Like any habit, getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations takes practice. An easy way to start practicing is to simply ask your team “What do you think about X?” See what they have to say. Don’t push too hard because, like you, they will be uncomfortable. They have the same fears. Just listen. At some point, they will probably turn the question over to you: “What do you think?” If you are not sure, it’s OK to say “I’m not sure. That’s why I wanted to hear from you. I’ll give it some thought and we can revisit next week. Thank you for sharing.”

Start a conversation about business ethics each week and by this time next year you will have practiced over 50 times. And by then, you will be more comfortable, you will be better at it, and when anyone on your team notices something that doesn’t seem quite right, they will bring it up during your weekly meeting.

And then, just like that, you will have planted the seeds of an ethical culture.

Best wishes for 2021.

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