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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Building and Nurturing an Ethical Culture

Margaret Steen

How can organizations create and sustain an ethical culture? Albert C. Pierce offered one answer in a talk to the Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Pierce is professor of ethics and national security at the National Defense University in Washington. Previously, he was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics (now known as the Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership) at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Pierce first defined culture: the beliefs, social norms, and traits of a particular group or a set of goals, values, and practices that characterize a group or corporation.

Culture consists of both tangible and intangible qualities. At work, that includes both formal codes of conduct and how people feel about themselves, their bosses, and their work. "We tend to assume that if you have the tangibles, the intangibles go along with it," Pierce said. However, this is not a sound assumption in this case.

Culture has to be practiced at both the top and the bottom of an organization. "What the leaders preach, if it isn't practiced by the people down below, then it's just a bunch of speeches," Pierce said.

Organizations often have an official culture and an unofficial one. Even if the official culture includes positive values, these can be undermined if they are unofficially or officially ignored.

"Culture is most vibrant and robust when you have the tangible and intangible, the official and unofficial," Pierce said. "You can't have a disconnect."

"Culture is very hard to change," Pierce said. "Building any culture is a long, slow, one-brick-at-a-time kind of process."

On the other hand, it's not difficult to destroy a positive culture with a catastrophic event. "It can be shattered the way you shatter an egg," Pierce said. "It can also erode slowly over time."

Because organizations consist of individuals, individual behavior matters a great deal in creating and maintaining a healthy culture. Pierce outlined four abilities that organizations should develop in individuals:

  • * Moral awareness. Throughout the organization, individuals need the ability to recognize when a problem is more than a narrow technical problem, and has a dimension of right and wrong.
  • * Moral reasoning. Once the moral issue has been identified, it's not usually obvious what the right answer is, Pierce said. People need to be able to think through the problem, project the consequences, and then decide what to do. "It's not the case that ethics is just about good vs. evil," Pierce said. "Life is more complex than that."
  • * Moral courage. It may turn out that the ethical answer to a problem is not easy to implement. Employees need to overcome the fear of being ostracized by their peers, for example, or getting a poor performance review.
  • * Moral effectiveness. When the goal is to persuade someone else to choose the most ethical action, some ways are more effective than others. Attacking a person for choosing a particular action is rarely the most effective, for example.

Pierce suggested a three-tiered approach to maintaining a strong organizational culture. Ideally, everyone should do the right thing at all times for the right reasons. However, if not everyone is inclined to choose an action simply because it is the most ethical, a persuasive argument may be that it is the right strategic move for the organization. The bottom line, however, is that for a leader whose goal is to keep people from making the wrong choices, it's enough for people to make the right decisions just to keep from getting caught if they were to make a wrong one.

Sometimes it appears that the right thing to do conflicts with the defined mission of the organization: For example, treating customers well conflicts with a company's profit goal.

In that case, Pierce suggests taking a broader view of the organization's goals. Perhaps profits will suffer in the long run if customers aren't treated well, even if treating customers well will cost more money in the short run.

Pierce describes this as "opening up your ethical aperture and thinking about a wider definition of what we are all about. What are we trying to accomplish here" that will have a lasting effect or impression upon the undertaking?

Margaret Steen is a freelance author.

May 1, 2013