Ethics in the workplace: ethical intelligence and how to achieve it
In the penultimate article in Luke Andreski’s series on ethics in the workplace he looks at the topic of ethical intelligence. What is ethical intelligence and why is it important? Is it possible to increase the ethical IQ (eIQ) of the organisations in which we work?
Ethical intelligence is the ability to make ethical decisions when faced with moral challenges. We are faced with such challenges every day of our working lives. Sometimes we are unaware of the moral subtext to our actions, but on closer inspection all social transactions reveal moral implications. Is the influence being exerted by one person over another in a business hierarchy nurturing or exploitative? Is a transaction fair? Are all our actions kind, or do some of them subtly undermine one or another of our colleagues? On any specific occasion, are we being entirely honest?
The ethical assessment of these questions presupposes an agreed code of ethics. For the purposes of this series I have taken three straightforward and uncontroversial moral objectives as the basis for this code:
- Moral objective 1: to nurture those around us and seek their fulfilment.
- Moral objective 2: to nurture our community and humanity as a whole.
- Moral objective 3: to nurture and protect the biological world.
On these foundations we are able to construct policies and practices that can be clearly seen to be moral. We can assess actions and decisions on the basis of their compliance with these aims.
Even on the basis of such simple and direct principles, however, moral quandaries can be difficult to resolve. What methods are available to help us achieve sound moral judgments?
In my book Ethical Intelligence I identify seven techniques for enhanced ethical thinking.
Let’s consider each in turn.
1. Think first
We live in a world where we are confronted with vast quantities of information on a daily basis. The flood of data, assertion and opinion can at times seem overwhelming.
It is therefore crucial we become ‘pre-emptive’ in our thinking. We must get our thinking done before someone else does it for us – before ‘cognitive imperialism’ beats us to the draw. We must be ultra-analytical about the data provided to us, asking such questions as, ‘who benefits from my agreeing with or believing this information?’ ‘What are the motives underlying this message or instruction?’ ‘What is the big picture?’ ‘Where do I fit in all of this?’
Our mantra must be: think first before someone or something – whether that’s a person, algorithm or AI – does your thinking for you.
2. Embed your thinking in the moral context
Everything a person does falls within the moral context. Morality tells us which of our actions or decisions are good or bad. So we must always ask of ourselves, 'how does what we are choosing to do conform to being moral, to having integrity and to doing good?’
Embedding our thought processes within this context, and keeping our ethical objectives at the forefront of our minds, is an essential strategy for developing our ethical IQ (eIQ).
Think first before someone or something – be it person, algorithm or AI – does your thinking for you…
3. Use the language of understanding
eIQ deploys the thought patterns and language of understanding. Understanding has inbuilt implications of tolerance. It encourages communication rather than the manipulative use of words to seduce or control. Understanding is collaborative. It suggests that together we can achieve a shared vision. Understanding is non-threatening and non-conflicting. It uses language such as ‘help me understand…’; or ‘my understanding is this…’; or ‘with the information I have so far it looks as if…’
Understanding is ethical because it defines knowledge as a shared resource to which we can all gain access.
4. Be ambitious in your thinking
Ethical intelligence is not passive. It challenges tradition, habit and routine. It asks, ‘is this how things ought to be?’
Our society, our science and technology have accomplished wonders – and we’ve only just begun. Why not go further, creating the unusual, the astounding, the original, the unique? Why not seek new and ethical solutions to old and unresolved problems? Why not turn our world around and make it work in brand new ways?
5. Be honest
Honesty is integral to morality. How could it be otherwise? It is crucial that we value honesty in our thinking and our actions and in the words and actions of others. No one has integrity if they lie. Dishonesty fundamentally conflicts with the core moral aims of nurturing those around us and of nurturing our community as a whole.
6. Root your thinking in reality
An essential aspect of ‘understanding’ is its basis in evidence and fact. The more closely our personal ‘map of the world’ meshes with reality, the more empowered we are in owning our actions, in understanding what is influencing us, in resisting or accepting this influence… and in being able to contribute ethically to our workplace and our world.
Ethics is bound by a rigorous internal logic, and assumes a discoverable external reality to which our core moral aims indisputably apply.
Ethics assumes a discoverable external reality to which our core moral aims indisputably apply.
7. Aim for ever greater understanding
Our last technique is to emphasise that understanding can always improve. Knowledge progresses through achieving ever better descriptions of reality. In the Middle Ages our belief in a flat earth served us well enough, but then we needed to take a further step. We moved to a better understanding that facilitated travel and trade all across the earth.
Through many such steps we have created the marvels of the modern world.
Far better, then, in our professional lives, to be alert to new evidence, to be prepared to adapt and improve, and to aim, each day, for ever-greater understanding.
Is eIQ improvable?
Given these seven disciplines, is it possible to improve the eIQ of our organisation, business or workplace?
Firstly, let’s note that eIQ is not a static quality. It is not a case of either having eIQ or not. This is true even of traditional intelligence. Our brains adapt and grow long after our early formative years. See for example the case of London taxi drivers, whose memory centres increase in size as they learn to navigate the metropolis. As we undertake new activities, our brains ramp up to support these activities. We become cleverer at what we do.
In a similar way we can enhance our eIQ simply through the application of the disciplines outlined above. If we work hard to be pre-emptive and analytical in our thinking, our capacity for analysis improves. If we work hard to embed our decision-making in the moral context, our brains will become better at doing this. If we exercise the thought patterns of understanding we will become more able to understand.
Our brains adapt and grow long after our early formative years. We become cleverer at what we do.
How, then, is this applicable to the workplace?
In an earlier article I indicated the key characteristics of the ethical business. One of these was to incorporate our core moral objectives into the mission statement of our business. This assertion of moral intent, and the publicising of our organisational ethics, is a first step towards embedding our workplace activities within the moral context.
This needs to be reinforced by introducing ethical thinking as an objective in our appraisals; by including training in ethical intelligence within our L&D portfolio, and by HR taking a lead role in the deployment of the seven disciplines of ethical intelligence.
Implement these measures and our ability as businesses to act ethically and to participate in the ethical enhancement of the modern workplace will be ensured.
In my final article in this series I discuss how trust can be enhanced within the workplace – and why ethics lies at the heart of this.
In the meantime, please join me in this discussion. Leave your comments below and I will respond as quickly as I can.
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Luke Andreski is a writer with over thirty years’ experience in the IT industry, specialising in HRIS implementations and change management. More recently he has focussed on moral philosophy and psychology, with a particular interest in business leadership and management ethics.
He has published two books on ethics: Ethical Intelligence,...