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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics and the Middle Manager:"Tone in The Middle"

Creating "Tone in The Middle"

Kirk Hanson

Creating a culture of ethics is often frustrated by a lack of attention and commitment by middle managers.

Creating a culture of ethics requires all levels of employees believe that the organization wants to act ethically in all it does. Emphasis since 2001 on "tone at the top," one of the legacies of the misbehavior by top management in the Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and other scandals, has helped many top executives realize they must create this tone by their own behavior.
Too often, however, the behavior of middle managers remains unchanged, and undermines ethical messages and the creation of an ethical culture which is a corporate priority. If middle managers are not committed to the values and ethics, this is immediately apparent to the lower level employees. The implementation of ethics in an organization is only as strong as its weakest link as it flows down into the organization.

An organization's "tone at the top" must be translated into a "tone at the middle" before it can reach the rest of the organization.

What is needed in every organization is an understanding by the top management and by the ethics/compliance professionals that they are seeking to influence specific behaviors of middle managers, just as they have focused in recent years on specific behaviors by top executives.
The problem of motivating middle managers, however, is in many ways more difficult. Middle managers are given explicit and often unyielding financial, sales, and cost control goals to achieve. At times, they may perceive that top management is actually giving them the message to focus on the quantifiable business goals and not on the "softer" ethical goals, that the ethical messages were "for the record" and not real. At other times, they may perceive that top management simply does not realize they cannot meet the stretch performance goals without "stretching" the ethical standards of the organizations. In these cases, many middle managers decide for themselves to take the expedient path.

There are specific behaviors which middle managers must demonstrate in order for lower level employees to understand that the organization is serious about ethics.

It is possible to specify the middle management behaviors that will help the creation of an ethical culture. These are similar to that of the top management but include some unique actions. The key behaviors are:

  1. Talk frequently about the ethical values and ethical commitment of the organization
  2. Anticipate ethical dilemmas which typically arise in his or her area of responsibility
  3. Talk about how the ethical values and commitments apply to the work of the specific group
  4. Talk about how the ethical values and commitments apply to specific decisions the middle manager makes or participates in.
  5. Recognize ethical issues when they do arise
  6. Ask questions when the ethical action is unclear
  7. Make ethical decisions consistent with organizational values and ethics
  8. Report concerns about ethical and unethical actions to top managers

There are specific techniques which help the top to communicate the organization's real ethical commitment to the middle managers in ways that convince them the organization is serious.

Motivating middle managers to reinforce the ethical culture of the organization by their own actions requires several specific actions by top executives. Among them are:

  1. Top executives must themselves exhibit all the "tone at the top" behaviors, including acting ethically, talking frequently about the organization's values and ethics, and supporting the organization's and individual employee's adherence to the values
  2. Top executives must explicitly ask middle managers what dilemmas arise in implementing the ethical commitments of the organization in the work of that group
  3. Top executives must give general guidance about how values apply to those specific dilemmas
  4. Top executives must explicitly delegate resolution of those dilemmas to the middle managers
  5. Top executives must make it clear to middle managers that their ethical performance is being watched as closely as their financial performance
  6. Top executives must make ethical competence and commitment of middle managers a part of their performance evaluation
  7. The organization must provide opportunities for middle managers to work with peers on resolving the hard cases.
  8. Top executives must be available to the middle managers to discuss/coach/resolve the hardest cases

Selected Resources:

"Who Wants To Be A Middle Manager?" (USA Today, August 12, 2007)

Kirk Hanson is executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and University Professor of Organizations and Society. He prepared this briefing for the Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership.

May 9, 2008