Ethics in the workplace: the ethical manager
In the third article of this nine-part series on ethics in the workplace, Luke Andreski investigates what it means to be an ethical manager, asking ‘can managers be both successful and ethical in a competitive workplace environment?’
So far in our discussion I’ve focussed on ethics at an organisational level. Ethical organisations are increasingly seen as a template for business success, achieving not only greater societal benefits but also increased profitability.
How, then, does this apply to leadership and management? Surely those of us who occupy executive and managerial roles have a part to play in transitioning our businesses towards an ethical model?
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This is certainly true. Leadership is always capable of influencing company ethos – and despite making the case in my last article for engineering morality into the policies and structure of our businesses, there remains a powerful contribution to be made by managers.
At the start of this series we articulated three straightforward and uncontroversial moral principles:
- To nurture others.
- To nurture the wider community and our species as a whole.
- To nurture the biological world.
In the context of the workplace, how is such ‘nurturing’ to be achieved?
At a basic level, the needs of our colleagues are met through pay, a secure and welcoming working environment, and through the provisions of health and safety.
In more progressive businesses we also see the higher strata of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs being attended to.
Team building, career development and training opportunities all support our profound need for ‘loving/belonging, esteem and self-actualisation’.
Despite Maslow’s identification of these needs, however, there are moral aspects of employee wellbeing about which he is less explicit.
Our three straightforward moral principles are to nurture others, to nurture our community, and to nurture the biological world.
The moral need for freedom
Freedom is a central consideration in all great systems of ethical thought. It is also key to the nature of ethics itself. If you are not free you cannot be judged for your actions. No one judges an automaton or a machine.
It is therefore also our duty, from a moral perspective, to ensure the freedom of others.
I represent this in the following algorithm:
- IF: being moral requires you to be free.
- AND IF: all moral codes instruct you to be moral.
- THEN: encouraging human freedom is a moral imperative.
How, then, does this apply to ethical leadership?
It means that the ethical manager will encourage the autonomy of those who work for them. This is a moral imperative, yet also of practical benefit.
Freedom enables creativity, innovation and a sense of self-direction. Autonomy contributes to the needs at the very apex of Maslow’s hierarchy, while also contributing to business success (see here and here).
The moral need for opportunity
The nature of opportunity as a moral imperative stems directly from human equality.
Equality is the ‘starting position’ of most significant ethical codes: the position we occupy before we take our behaviour and actions into account.
If we are all inherently equal (before the starting gun is fired), then we are all entitled to equitable levels of opportunity.
Throughout the business community we see progressive organisations supporting this via their policies on diversity, anti-racism, non-discrimination, equal pay and employee progression.
A commitment to such policies, and to ensuring shared and equal opportunity amongst those we work with or lead, must therefore be seen as a crucial attribute of the ethical manager.
A need for involvement
Moral wellbeing also requires a sense of inclusion and involvement. This is equivalent to Maslow’s ‘loving/belonging’.
It is a fundamental human drive to want to be part of a family, a community or a tribe – and to want to contribute to that family, community or tribe.
The ethical manager recognises this need, seeking to address it through team building and encouraging a collaborative and consultative approach to decision-making and problem-solving.
Ethical leaders are invariably consultative and inclusive in character, involving and engaging those they lead rather than simply overruling or controlling them.
Responsibility is a fourth key element in moral wellbeing. Ethical systems, whilst asserting human freedom, invariably also define the responsibility that this freedom incurs.
Ethical managers will therefore encourage a sense of responsibility in those who work for them - a responsibility to their colleagues, to the business as a whole, and to the wider stakeholder community.
Key elements of moral wellbeing
Selflessness: a commitment to others
I discuss in greater detail the four elements of moral flourishing in my book Intelligent Ethics, but the case I wish to make here is that a commitment to the freedom, opportunity, involvement and responsibility of those they manage is a key characteristic of the ethical manager.
This commitment is not limited solely to the manager’s direct reports. It also extends to the wider community.
It is through this broader commitment that we meet the moral imperative to ‘nurture our community and humanity as a whole’.
The ethical manager therefore considers the needs of all who are affected by their activities, no matter how indirectly.
Morality is not just about the small picture. It applies to the big picture, too.
The environmental compact
The argument can be extended further still. A moral commitment to individuals and to humanity must also entail a commitment to the environment, since viable environments are a prerequisite for the thriving of individuals and the survival of our species.
The ethical manager is therefore, almost by definition, an environmentalist.
In this capacity, we must seek to identify the ecological impacts of our businesses, and strive to eliminate or counterbalance those which are environmentally damaging.
As managers and leaders, we must be ambitious: seeking to achieve more than mere neutrality. We must also strive to enhance the wellbeing of the biological world.
I will return to the topical ‘environmental question’ later in this series.
A commitment to our businesses, to our colleagues and to our community also entails a commitment to the environment that sustains them.
Competitiveness and efficiency versus ethics and integrity
We must now ask if there is a risk of ethical leadership detracting from our efficiency as leaders or managers.
Must business leaders be ruthless, hard-nosed and driven in order ‘to keep the show on the road’?
There are two answers to this. The first is that the leadership traits identified here do not compromise or detract from efficiency. In fact they contribute to it:
1. Ethical management generates trust, and trust increases productivity.
2. Ethical managers encourage autonomy, involvement, opportunity and responsibility – and these factors contribute to:
- Team and business confidence
- Workplace and colleague wellbeing
- Problem-solving approaches rather than finger-pointing or blame-assigning
All of which are likely to improve the performance of teams and businesses rather than the reverse.
Our second answer to the challenge of efficiency is another question: ‘what are we being ruthlessly hard-nosed and effective for?’
There is no ethical reason why the objectives of our businesses should take precedence over the needs of the people who work in them, who lead them or who are impacted by their activities.
Business success is desirable, contributing greatly to our society, but this can never justify harm to humans, to humanity or to the environment.
In fact, the bottom line of any business must ultimately be ethical. This recognition is a central element of what it means to be an ethical business leader.
In my next article, The Ethical Employee, I’ll ask ‘Is being ethical good for your career?’
I will discuss the characteristics of the ethical colleague, the ethical contract between employee and employer, and the expectations both can legitimately hold of the other in an ethical context.
In the meantime, it would be wonderful if you joined me in this discussion. Please leave your comments below and I will respond as quickly as I can.
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,...