Archive for the ‘Ethical Behavior’ category

The Week in Ethics: The Way Forward from Public Shaming

July 15, 2015

iPhone April 11, 2014 272 Students in a middle school painted words important to them on rocks placed under a tree. “Patience,” “courage,” “strength,” and “peace” were scattered under the limbs. However the lineup of a yellow heart, “tolerance” and “healing” held my eye during a walk in 2013; they were an antidote to the lack of humanity words as weapons cause.

I thought of those rocks this week after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a new book by journalist Jon Ronson. He recounts recent examples of how far an online posse of righteous shamers can go condemning others’ ethical failings, judgment errors or offensive attempts at humor. Among the stories of social media shaming that Ronson includes are journalist Jonah Lehrer’s plagiarism, the racist-interpreted “joke” tweet of PR executive Justine Sacco and the obscene gesture in a photograph in Arlington National Cemetery Lindsey Stone posted of herself on Facebook.

Social media has a piranha capacity to feed off self-sabotage. Rationally, authors know plagiarism is an ethical time bomb, just as news anchors understand lying and distorting facts destroy credibility (the problems of Brian Williams erupted after the book was written). And no one should be surprised that Twitter and Facebook accounts don’t guarantee quiet repositories for acting out unfiltered attempts at humor.

However, not understanding the consequences of enraged social media is to be in denial over the potential consequences of losses — in jobs, trust, reputation, safety (as attacks cut more deeply personal) and even one’s life. It is a double-sided ignorance: Not seeing the piranha waits or recognizing if you and the piranha have become one.

Ronson, writing about the impact of the public shaming on Lehrer, explained:

“People were very keen to imagine Jonah as shameless, as lacking in that quality, like he was something not quite human that had adopted human form. I suppose it’s no surprise we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt — before, during, or after the hurting occurs….In psychology it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone.)”

Ultimately, shaming, Ronson writes, dehumanizes the onlooker as well as the person being shamed.

Shamers get trapped in feedback reinforcement says documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis , whom Ronson quotes. That process, Curtis points out: “… locks people off in the world they started with and prevents them from finding out anything different.”

A world of instant reaction means what we put out on social media stands alone without context or qualification. And rather than our comments accepted as random orphans of thought by people who know us and make allowances, strangers not in our circle can weigh in. To them, whatever we say or do is seen as a representation of who we are. It creates an accountability we dodge at our peril. Ideally, knowing this allows us to operate with more attention to our emotional intelligence — particularly our self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy.

As for viewers, instant reaction triggers instant judgments, often building off the tone of comments that have gone before. If reaction becomes outrage, are we even aware when it crosses over into shaming, bullying, threatening and deconstructing… fueled by assuming the other person “deserves” whatever we volley at them from behind the net of our anonymity? The irony is that our own thoughtlessness, insensitivity and capacity to injure can occur with the greatest frequency when we are convinced of the rightness of our own point of view.

In Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, author Donna Hicks writes that while people have to earn respect through behaviors and actions, “dignity is a birthright” that everyone deserves. “Treating people badly because they have done something wrong only perpetuates the cycle of indignity,”she writes. “What is worse,” she continues, “we violate our own dignity in the process. Others’ bad behavior doesn’t give us license to treat them badly in return.”

“Dignity” — honoring one’s own and others –an enduring antidote to support diversity of opinion and our humanity.

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, July 15, 2015

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where her July column is “Why More Companies Are Speaking Out on Social Issues.”




The Week in Ethics: Is Ethical Leadership Contagious?

July 24, 2013

If you were trying to foster ethical leadership in your organization, could anything make it “contagious?”

For starters, labeling it as “ethical leadership” might not take you as far as you’d like. How often do people say they are on board, “get it” and don’t need more?  While they might be willing to read about or take courses in strategic or global leadership, for example, many equate ethical leadership with what they learned growing up; if they need to spend more time talking about it, it might look like they are deficient in Golden Rule 101.

That’s the problem with blinders leaders, high potentials and any of us can have about our own ethical development — why it can suddenly be hard to give voice to values (because we’ve never thought about a potential conflict that suddenly surfaces) or why decisions are made weighing only legal and financial consequences (without noticing the potential for unintended ethical consequences) or why we need to be right.

When we talk about ethics and leadership in organizations, we need to translate it into values and behaviors we want visible in the culture that in turn build off a company’s values. While we say that ethical leadership encompasses the highest personal and organizational standards that vagueness creates an abstraction where everyone “gets it”  in theory, and can overlook it in practice.

Our language sets up creating the norm of what the organization stands for — and the behaviors supporting that — which then demystifies and brings the type of leadership we want to see and cultivate into day-to-day reality. If those qualities are talked about in examples and stories when the CEO meets with the board, direct reports and others; if they are linked to business success, reinforced in informal and formal mentoring programs, meaningfully incorporated into performance reviews, and play a role in why people get recognized, promoted or let go: the norm can be imitated and then owned.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is increasingly being reinforced in organizations as a way to develop leaders and help them succeed. (See Daniel Goleman’s What Makes a Leader.) Reinforcing EQ reinforces attributes important in ethical leadership so it is a win-win.

Some resources for thinking about how ideas can take hold in a culture include Contagious: Why Things Catch On by  Jonah Berger (video above) and the books that fueled his thinking: Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the Heath brothersMade to Stick.

Applying that to what could make ethical leadership contagious involves first looking at what  natural advantages exist in your culture to tap into to help ideas take hold. Then, what ideas might offer perceived value. For example, creating a special leadership forum site with links to good articles, blogs, book reviews and news stories fosters leadership development that reinforces the norm you want, with triggers to keep the subject top of mind, while saving leaders’/potential leaders’ time in finding useful information they can apply and share with others. Launch it with a sense of exclusivity: perhaps needing a password. Enlist the support of admired leaders in the organization to make reference in meetings to an article on the site they liked, and find other ways to have the site talked about and positioned as a place high potentials go for useful leadership tips. Who wouldn’t want to be considered “high potential”?

How do the values and attributes of ethical leadership become contagious in organizations?

They are modeled by the board, CEO and other leaders. They are talked about and interrelated with business and personal success. They are mentored and cultivated, enmeshed in the culture’s stories and allied with how people feel/see they can make a difference. They are linked to reducing stress. They are connected to what stakeholders’ value, attached to what it takes to belong and reinforced throughout the organization.

Gael O’Brien July 24, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her November 6, 2013 column looks at whether loyalty is owed when a boss acts as a good leader. 

The Week in Ethics: Wisdom in Action, Andrew Pochter and Martin Richard

July 13, 2013

Our individual wisdom is what shapes our leadership and determines our humanity. It comes out of how we see, feel and interpret joys and sorrow in life and what we’ve learned from others.

How we live and act on our wisdom is our legacy, a true measure of how we inspire and impact others.

The deaths of eight-year old Martin Richard in the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and Kenyon College student Andrew Pochter, a bystander in Egypt’s June 2013 political uprising, are among the more recent tragic consequences of a world-wide breakdown in wisdom when intransigent intolerance and random violence become the overpowering language.

Martin Richard cropA makeshift memorial in Boston’s Copley Square, bound on three sides by what seemed like thousands of running shoes, framed the tributes to those killed and the more than 260 injured in the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Martin’s parents were injured in the blasts and his sister, an aspiring dancer, lost a leg. The tribute to Martin focused on his own words: “No more hurting people. Peace.”

He had written that message on a poster for a class project after 17-year old Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida.

Andrew Pochter was in Alexandria, Egypt for an internship teaching English to children Martin Richard’s age when he was stabbed to death watching a protest. He had planned to return after college, his parents said, “to live and work there in pursuit of peace and understanding.” At his funeral July 12, 2013, his sister read a letter he had sent recently to a 12-year old he’d been mentoring the previous five summers at a camp for at-risk youth in Maryland. The camper was graduating from the program.

In the letter, Andrew congratulated him on all he’d accomplished, called out his strengths and offered snippets of Andrew’s own wisdom, telling the 12-year old: to surround himself with friends who do “good deeds” and care about his future, not blame others for their mistakes, and speak with confidence “because your personal confidence is just as important as your education.”

We can’t know what Martin or Andrew or any of the thousands of youth killed each year by political, religious and sexual violence or other forms of rage could have contributed by their leadership had they lived. However, globally there has been a huge loss of potential talent and contribution. We know that Martin and Andrew, among so many others, knew the wisdom of peace.

That legacy in a world torn up by intolerance — the opposite of peace — fueled by the legacy of so many others who died in service of peace demand that leaders at every level start by acting on their wisdom to rout out intolerance in their own spheres crippling governments, workplaces, families, and communities, and then advance the conversation to act globally.

Intolerance is poison. The lyrics of “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” in the iconic 1949 musical South Pacific (which Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific) continue to resonate through Broadway revivals and community theaters. It reminds us of what we have yet to undo:

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear….You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Gael O’Brien July 13, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her June 2013 column looks at leadership vulnerabilities of departing OSU president Gordon Gee.

The Week in Ethics: Leadership Lessons at American Academy of Arts and Sciences

June 18, 2013

column photo of ethics under microscope The integrity of the leader of an honorary society for independent public policy — founded  in 1780 during the American Revolution — is  under question as a result of misrepresentations on her resume and criticisms from former employees over her bullying, micromanaging management style.

While there is never a good moment for negative media attention, it is coming at a particularly awkward time for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It is landing on the eve of the June 19, 2013 release of a commission report the academy has guided for more than two years, expected to offer far reaching recommendations for education and cultural institutions.

Leslie Berlowitz, the head of the academy for the last 17 years, is now on leave while an internal investigation by an outside law firm addresses issues raised in a series of articles in the Boston Globe in June 2013. The articles indicate that the academy’s applications for at least three federal grants list Berlowitz having a doctorate from New York University (NYU) that NYU has no record of her completing. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which gave $1.2 million to the academy based on grant applications that included Berlowitz’s inflated credential, has referred the issue to its inspector general.  The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (charged with overseeing nonprofits) has also announced an investigation. Two others who gave grants to the academy (US Department of Energy and Carnegie Corporation of New York) are checking to see if false information was provided on their grant applications.

The articles indicate that in checking her resume against NYU records, where she worked before joining the academy, a job title for one position is misstated and length of service for another is misrepresented.  Academy employment ads refer to Berlowitz as “doctor” and further investigation by the Globe reporter found an email two years ago from Berkowitz where she implied she had a doctorate.

A month after turning down requests to be interviewed by the reporter and two weeks after the first Globe story was published, Berlowitz said in a statement that she “never intentionally misrepresented her accomplishments,” accepted responsibility for materials that left “an incorrect impression,” and acknowledged that she had the title of vice president of institutional advancement at NYU rather than academic advancement which, the Globe reported, has appeared on the academy website and in grant applications.  An academy spokesman originally blamed Berlowitz’s staff for resume errors, saying she was unaware of them.

The profile that emerges in the article is of a board/governing council extremely supportive of Berlowitz, who in 2004 bypassed the normal election process for membership into the Academy of Arts and Sciences — which honors the most accomplished scholars, innovators, and artists in their fields — when they added her as an inductee. They quietly inserted her name into “the original six-month-old announcement, a spokesman acknowledged, making it look as though Berlowtiz had been voted in along with everyone else in the spring.” Berlowitz’s $598,000 salary — higher than many college presidents’ — and first travel perks also indicate Board support. Former employees quoted in the article indicated the board ignored complaints about Berlowitz’s management style made to them.

The significant number of former employees willing to talk (anonymously and as named sources) to the Globe about their criticisms of Berlowitz’s leadership, calling her management style bullying, harsh, dismissive and micromanaging raise the question of what is motivating them. Is it a set up or revenge by those who believe they were treated badly capitalizing on her current vulnerability? Or is the issue an outcome of a detached governance process with too heavy reliance on the internal leader and no means to ensure that the leader’s management style and the organization’s work environment are functional and appropriate?

Either way it offers a cautionary tale about leaders vulnerability when they are unaware of the impact their leadership tone, style and communication have on employees; or worse, when they ignore or rationalize that impact without seeking to address it.

The unfolding saga at the academy also sends a message to boards that they have a responsibility to help an organization’s leader succeed by not just looking at the results, but being aware of the impact a leader is having on the larger team; and when there are red flags, stepping up to ensure the leader gets coaching in emotional intelligence or other issues, monitoring his or her workplace performance to be clear about expectations of improvement.

The academy’s purpose is to honor excellence. The need for all the investigations indicate that excellence has been compromised in terms of how the academy and their leaders have operated internally. Restoring integrity will involve transparency about the investigations’ findings, dealing directly with allegations about Leslie Berlowitz’s leadership, and putting as high a priority on how things are done internally as the achievements that result from them. The founding fathers would expect no less.

Gael O’Brien June 18, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her June 2013 column looks at leadership vulnerabilities of departing OSU president Gordon Gee.

The Week in Ethics: Words Conveying Empowering Values Falling Out of Use

May 22, 2013

photo of courageWords matter. We know that from the impact they can have on us. And the reaction our words can have on others.

Words can package the fuel that inspire us to behave in a way that brings out the best in ourselves and in others.

Using words like “courage,” “decency,” “honesty,” “conscience,” “patience,” “compassion,” and “modesty” paint a picture of someone who has qualities that inspire trust, whose behavior gives life to values we can admire. Perhaps someone whose leadership we’d willingly follow.

When we use the word “courage,” for example, to reflect back to a friend how we see her meeting cancer head on or whisper it to ourselves before having a difficult conversation with a boss or customer…..the word, and its connotation, fortifies.

“Courage” is one of many words that empower. However, to be a sustainable resource “courage,” and words like it have to be expressed; they need to describe behavior made evident or desired. And ironically, evidence points to these words falling out of use at a time when we need them most.

Shifts in language reflect a shift in culture based on the frequency of their use, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks who cites several studies in “What Our Words Tell Us” that indicate that words like “courage,” and the others just mentioned, decreased in use in the 20th century.

“A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir,”Brooks writes, “found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently.” Of the 50 words associated with moral virtue that their study identified, Brooks says that the Kesebirs found “that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed.” According to the findings, particularly hard hit were courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” which fell by 66 percent; while words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent.

We know that ethical behavior doesn’t flow from throwing the right words into a speech or on a website, poster or piece of paper. Enron’s Code of Conduct (63 pages) and personalized note paper printed at the bottom with the values “Respect,”Integrity,”Communication,” and “Excellence” attest to that. However, words in the mouths of leaders whose behavior consistently strives to model the values they talk about set a benchmark about what is expected. It sets the standard for “how we do things around here” where getting to stay means you “opt in.”

Low trust in institutions and leaders is a consequence of words and actions not matching. However the remedy for lost trust isn’t talking less about values so as not to hold one’s behavior up to scrutiny. It is having the courage — yes, courage again — to give voice to values and give support, as well as draw support from others, in the ongoing process of practicing, modeling and living the values that make the individual, the organization, and society stronger.

Community can be the best re-inforcer of values. And herein lies the rub. Brooks also cites a study by Twenge, Campbell and Gentile that found that between 1960 and 2008, words like “community,” and “common good” receded from use, while terms like “self” and “I come first” increased in use.

The reality is that what we focus on we get more of. “I come first” doesn’t inspire the trust of other stakeholders and calls into question the capacity for long-term sustainability. Leaders making a mid-flight correction to restore trust in their institutions will need courage, one of many words that enrich all of us when practiced and used.

Gael O’Brien May 22, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her May 2013 column takes on the siren song in “hip” and “edgy” advertising. 

Note: Photograph is of a rock painted by a student at Robert Adams Middle School displayed on the grounds.


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