No laughing matter
November 15, 2013
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Work In Progress
James Adonis is one of Australia’s best-known people-management thinkers
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What sort of a leader would you make?
What sort of a leader would you make?
When working with a large Australian company recently, I asked a group of 30 team leaders what they would do if they overheard an employee telling a racist joke. Their response, almost in unison, was surprising: “We’d laugh.”
Jokes in their organisation – even those of a racist nature – are seen as a way for people to connect and bond despite the potential consequences for offence and litigation. They were convinced that if they were ever to do what’s right, which is to publicly condemn the racist joke, they’d damage morale within the team and turn a positive experience into a negative one.
Anyone anywhere is capable of abandoning the famous golden rule: “Do unto others…
Such moral dilemmas are arising frequently in workplaces. Even in cases where what’s right and wrong are clearly stipulated in policy manuals and codes of ethics, much is still left open to interpretation and subjectivity.
I once worked for a call centre in which the leaders had to listen to employees’ calls remotely for quality coaching purposes. What many employees didn’t realise was that it was common for even their personal calls to be monitored, with the leaders secretly giggling afterwards as they shared what they’d heard.
In that case, the leaders weren’t breaking any rules. It was legitimate for them to wait for a personal call to finish so they could hear the beginning of the next one. But their reaction to what they heard exposed their real intention.
One final example. A colleague of mine ran a staff satisfaction survey a few months ago. It was branded an anonymous way for employees to voice their opinion. Supposedly anonymous, anyway. The thing about some internal surveys is that you can easily track down the respondents and what they said.
And that’s precisely what happened when one of those respondents made a nasty and unfair comment about his manager. The comment was the type that would most probably result in the termination of his employment had it been said aloud and in person.
But it wasn’t, and so in the absence of sacking him, his career within that organisation is now unlikely to progress. He’ll be left wondering why he’s not being promoted without realising the political ramifications of his brutal words, words that weren’t supposed to betray his identity.
In each of those examples, the morality of the leaders has been called into question. Your perception of their immorality will differ based upon your worldview and upbringing. So which of the three do you think are morally right and which are morally wrong?
The challenge with morality is that it requires confidence and bravery. In an insightful analysis published in the Business Ethics journal, the researchers concluded that moral courage is essential in every business. They refer to it as “habits of the heart”, defining a morally courageous person as someone who makes decisions based on what’s good for others, despite any personal risk.
In the book Moral Courage, Dr Rushworth Kidder (the founder of the Institute for Global Ethics) lists five characteristics that morally courageous leaders have in common. Flipped in reverse, these attributes also illustrate what tempts them to behave immorally in the first place. Immoral leaders:
Are influenced more by personalities than by principles.
Are intolerant of ambiguity and personal loss.
Seek immediate gratification and simple rewards.
Do not think independently.
Lack persistence and determination.
When one or more of those underlying factors is present, leaders are more inclined to do whatever it takes in the pursuit of a short-term goal – even if that means sacrificing their ethics and personal values.
Of course, it’s not just leaders. Anyone anywhere is capable of abandoning the famous golden rule: “Do unto others…”
What examples of immoral behaviour have you witnessed in your workplace?
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