Can Ethics be Taught?
“You can’t expect everyone to act ethically just like that” – Sepp Blatter, amidst the current FIFA debacle, certainly has a way with words. His world view is admirable for its depth of cynicism and surely illustrates that a fish rots from its head. If that is the perspective taken by someone who is ultimately responsible for an organisation, then no wonder something serious is amiss in the FIFA world.
Leaders, who are in a position to affect other people’s lives through their actions and decisions, have a particular responsibility to ensure their behaviour is ethical. Their role is to define the ethical compass for their organisations and set a clear example from the top for others to follow. It is not an easy task. Defining what is the ‘right path’ is really simple when a choice is blatantly positive or negative. It is much harder when choices are nuanced and complex.
Not all leaders, it appears, make the right decisions even when the choice is clear. Evidently some people do not have a strong moral foundation, or the courage to speak out and do what they know to be the right thing when others around them are headed down an inappropriate path. They surely need help to develop an inner moral compass that will allow them to think through complex issues and make the right choices.
There is an on-going debate about whether ethics can be taught. The hard evidence – from many and varied psychological studies – shows that it is indeed possible to influence awareness of ethical issues and help managers develop sound reasoning processes to guide their decisions.
This isn’t about giving people a set of hard and fast rules to which everyone has to adhere. It is by providing opportunities for dialogue that help students, or later managers, think these issues through.
Of course a discussion of ethics will never make the seven sins disappear. What teaching ethics can do, however, is help as many people as possible to make as thoughtful decisions as possible.
Educational interventions can also help managers develop a better understanding of the stumbling blocks that get in the way of ethical behaviour. Research has shown, for example, that a bottom line mentality which in the case of FIFA appears to incorporate graft and greed, organisational influences, fear and peer pressure are the four very real and dominant barriers to ethical behaviour.
Fear, for example, can cause people to stay silent when they know they should really speak out. They may be unhappy with the way the company is operating, but frightened that if they become vocal they will risk losing a well-paid senior role at a time when jobs are scarce.
In-depth personal development – of the type that is ingrained on many business schools’ and certainly Ashridge’s leadership programmes – can do much to help managers cope with these kinds of dilemmas. It can heighten their self-awareness, for example, giving them a clear understanding of their personal values so that they are in a better position to stand their ground when necessary.
It can help them develop the capability to ‘self-govern’ and think critically about the appropriate response to the challenges they face. A by-product of this kind of dialogue and development is that managers also develop a support network they can turn to for guidance in difficult ethical situations.
While education is not a panacea, and not everyone will develop a moral compass, it is surely the role of education and of leadership to try. Alas, it does not appear that Blatter has even made the smallest effort.