Ethics: A core element of your story

By John Langhorne / Guest Column

Recent research findings suggest that leadership arises from a private story that people tell themselves. This story is not an autobiography – rather it’s how we make sense of what happens to us. We use this story to define who we are and guide our lives.

“Reflection is the process,” a trusted colleague and friend said, “that turns experience into knowledge.” In this case, the most important knowledge is who we are, how we behave and how we are changing. As such, our story is subject to ongoing revision as our lives develop. The story has many elements such as crucibles, mentors, experiences, strengths, motivations, and last but not least, values.

In my two previous columns, I reviewed how seemingly good people drift into misbehavior and why ethical behavior is profitable. In this third column, let’s consider values and ethics.

Child development research shows the onset of ethical behavior occurs early on in human beings. Young children have firmly held beliefs of what is right and wrong. The question of how some children lose those values as they mature goes unanswered. So how can we formulate a portion of our story that gives us an ethical foundation to guide our behavior?

Research on human interaction shows behavior is highly reciprocal – what you give is what you get. Respect begets respect, and disrespect begets disrespect. You can change the behavior of a disrespectful colleague by treating them respectfully – although this will work only if you have lots of patience. Lists of most-disliked behaviors by employees are mostly lists of disrespectful behaviors.

What basic beliefs must we hold in order to operate on the principle of reciprocity? First and foremost, we must believe people are trustworthy and thus deserving of our trust from the beginning of any relationship. Second, we must believe that in almost every situation, it is better for people to be informed than to remain in ignorance. Third, we must believe it is better for us to do things with others rather than to them.

These are key elements in the construction of trust. They are also key concepts in the repertory of high-performance managers. Thus, the construction of any set of ethical principles should support these beliefs.

One interesting, but often confusing, continuum within the discussion of ethical principles is the difference between rules and principles. Many people have not thought of this as a continuum, and the inability to comprehend this distinction can cause problems. Rules and principles are both very important; however, their application, and the context and results of that application, have quite different consequences.

A rule is basically an algorithm – a logical, step-by-step set of procedures that produces the same set of results every time. Principles are heuristics, or informal methods for solving problems or making decisions based on experience, often using iteration.

Let me give you an example. My mother and father complemented each other in a manner that allowed me to see and experience two very different styles of living in action (something I didn’t figure out until I was well into my 50s). My mother taught me a good rule: Always say, “thank you.” I use it often and it has served me well. However, my father, a man of few words, taught me through his actions to “always show respect for people.” This is a principle, as there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to enact it. This is more challenging, and requires thought and planful action. It is in a principle for living, and one that I am always working on improving.

Consider how much more powerful principles are when used in the workplace. Principles invite people to find their own personal manner of enacting them, and allow each person to examine the basic tenet and adjust her behavior.

Thus, we must find a balance between the use of rules and the use of principles, keeping in mind that managing from principles is more difficult because it requires the thoughtful exercise of judgment and common sense. A question to consider when making this decision might be, where do we seek the absolute adherence to rules versus the use of personal judgment driven by guiding principles?

My parents’ teachings served me well until I became a consultant. Working in organizations as an outsider presented many situations where the foundation of several immutable principles was essential. Fortunately, much has been written to assist in understanding principled behavior. Here are several for your consideration:

  • Show respect for people
  • Obey the law
  • Tell the truth
  • First, do no harm
  • Practice participation, not paternalism
  • Always act when you have the responsibility to do so

In my next column, we will examine each of these principles in-depth.

John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates, His most recent book, “Beyond IQ: Practical Steps to Find the Best You,” is available digitally at Amazon.