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Get Real-- and Ethics Will Follow

August 1, 1998
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Companies pay lip service to ethics, developing detailed codes of conduct, implementing "hot lines" and profiling policies. But when it comes to day-to-day activities, many companies actually promote the opposite of ethical behavior.

Take a look at these examples:

  • The company espouses that teamwork matters, but gives rewards for individual accomplishments.
  • "We value families," is a common sentiment, but those who take maternity/paternity leave lose their places in the queue.
  • The CEO states in the annual report: "Employee involvement is key," yet orchestrates a downsizing when the market changes.
  • Managers are told to hold employees accountable, but are forbid to discipline employees for fear of being charged with unfair practices.
  • HR tells new recruits that the company provides challenging and rewarding growth experiences to ensure continued employability. When the same employees ask to be released for a developmental assignment, their bosses won’t let them go because "they’re too valuable."

The gap between what is said and what is done promotes cynicism—and cynicism hatches, then dispatches, mistrust. Why does this matter? What does this have to do with ethics? Cynicism and mistrust breed unethical behavior.

So how do managers succeed at building and rebuilding trust? What really works and what really doesn’t? Follow this advice:

Inspire—but do so concretely.
Managers who are successful at building and rebuilding trust are able to articulate what the organization really stands for. They tell employees what the organization is really trying to achieve and what’s really in it for them. They’re willing to say, "Part of why you’re here is be-cause you’ve got a mortgage, two kids you want to send to college and car payments. You (and I) need to pay for these. And you’re not going to be disloyal if that’s the primary reason why you’re working here." These managers inspire concretely by telling their employees what the real goal is. They’re able to say what the Promised Land will look like—and it isn’t all milk and honey.

But managers who in-spire concretely go one step further. They recognize that in today’s insecure workplace, some em-ployees fear they may be perceived as disloyal if they ask, "What do I get out of this?" They recognize that some of their employees are not, will never be, and probably shouldn’t be "empowered." So they tell their employees how they will benefit from whatever new initiative the organization is introducing and what’s "in it" for them. In other words, managers tell their employees the personally relevant benefits of participating. They recognize that their employees ultimately care less about how new initiatives will help the organization and more about how they will benefit.

Acknowledge there is a "reality."
Managers who are effective at building trust acknowledge reality by surfacing problems (and successes) early, acknowledging and labeling mistakes and ascertaining others’ views of the organization’s reputation and performance.

They proactively communicate organizational and personal successes. But they also say, "I (We) did it wrong," when this is the case. They make errors discussible, and move on from there.

Good managers talk openly about results, not what they would like them to be. They make criticism okay, and they listen to it, whether it's accurate or not.

Consider what’s arguably the most famous illustration of this. The Bay of Pigs invasion was, unquestionably, a strategic and tactical error. But when President Kennedy went on network television to say, in effect, "I blew it," his popularity rose more in one day than any president’s before or since.

But managers acknowledge reality not only by admitting errors and discussing what went right and what went wrong, they also solicit and act on others’ views of the organization’s performance. They ask their employees, "What do you think? What’s your view? Was it a home run, a single or did we really strike out?" They seek out others’ perceptions in an attempt to ascertain and assess reality.

Act on reality and in-corporate it in your solutions.
. Managers who are effective at building trust employ strategies and tactics that are pragmatic, real time, and have a cause and effect relationship between ascertaining reality and dealing with reality. Some of them include:

  • Asking their work groups to name three realities the work group or the organization is not facing. This approach is an "assumptive close." It permits the discussion of what previously has been undiscussible. Ironically, it also allows people in the group to say, "There aren’t three realities we’re not facing. Things are better than that." Because the "undiscussible" is on the table, both sides of the issue can be aired.
  • Asking their work groups to name three reasons that the work unit or organization won’t meet its goals. Perhaps they have developed (or are saddled with) a well-intentioned, but misguided, strategy. So the manager asks, "What are three reasons why this strategy will crash and burn? And what should we do about it?" Again, the undiscussible is made discussible, and in making it so, the manager seeks out the reality of the situation and adds currency to the trust bank.
  • Soliciting the reality of their competitive positions—their strength in their markets, their quality and how it compares with others’, what their customers think, why their "non-customers" aren’t their customers, the potency of their competitors, and so on—and then building appropriate strategies to strengthen their position.

Be open—tell the truth.
Finally, managers build trust by being honest. They tell employees what they know—and they tell employees what they don’t know.

They tell employees how they’re really doing and where they stand, especially when the two are not the same. They talk openly about results, not what they would like them to be. They make criticism okay, and they listen to it, whether it’s accurate or not. Managers who are good at building trust say, "It’s really important that I hear your criticism. I realize that in the real world, that’s difficult—so please tell me what I can do that will make it safe for you to tell me what’s real, not what’s Memorex."

These managers also communicate without "unintended obfuscation." They speak English, not business babble. So, for example, one manager who was trying to determine why an empowerment initiative had failed said to his employees, "The truth is I don’t have a clue about what this "empowerment" stuff really means. I think it may be a new word for delegation."

In this day when many employees feel insecure, and when they regularly en-counter stress-producing events that are beyond their control, trust-building managers do one more thing—they recognize and help their employees recognize that nobody on their death bed ever said, "If only I had worked more."

Workforce, August 1998, Vol.77, No. 8, pp. 101-102.

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