word cloud of An Ethical Mindset

By redefining ethics, we can unlock better program efficacy and greater well-being.

By Jeff Kluge, Happiness Ethicist

When was the last time you felt ethics training was productive or left a constructive and positive impact on your well-being? While there is some great ethics content making its way through our training and educational systems, there remains an aspect that seems amiss.  

As major violations of public trust and ethical missteps cover our news media outlets; whether technology, financials, professional sports, or politicians, we witness industry after industry break down. Regulators and lawmakers think that if they come in with new rules and more training, the problems will go away. Then we endure additional hours of mandatory ethics training producing little impact. What they do is like squishing a water balloon. The problem shows up someplace else the next time. Rules & laws do not correct the underlying behaviors.

While these large societal problems seem too big to repair, they didn’t get that way overnight, and they can be reversed.  They began as smaller choices that someone made for a variety of reasons. There are times when the person knows they stepped over the line, but more often than not, the person is unaware and unconscious of their actions. Why is it that we struggle with ethics, ethical behavior, and being ethical? It comes down to three main points.

  1. We teach ethics the wrong way: it is not “right versus wrong.” It is a mindset of how and why we approach situations and problem solving the way we do.
  2. Most universities and ethics continuing education focuses on the symptoms of behavior or the most recent capital violation. In addition, for decades universities have focused ethics through the medical & business schools, and until recently have begun to expand to consider AI ethics.
  3. Pressures from professional and personal perspectives are often overlooked in training and ethics-related initiatives, which contribute significantly to the first and small step into the shadows.  

While I could make a fourth point about the disparity of money & power for the winners, I will not address it here, other than to say that “winning” at all costs can carry a deeper cost.

Lastly, this will present an outline of “how to fix it?” 

Ethics are not binary:

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The most cited definition of ethics is seen as the difference between right and wrong. It implies ethics requires a simple decision like the flick of a light switch, on/ off; right/ wrong; ethical/ unethical. If it were that easy, then professional continuing education and the classes throughout global universities would have solved the problem. Where does this mismatch originate?

Using this “right versus wrong” framework creates the following problems.

  1. While there are obvious light and dark extremes, we find that shadows exist most often in the foreground. Finding absolutes is not so simple. 
  2. When disruptive technologies are created, who determines and assesses what is “right” or “wrong?” Do they search for understanding outside their social networks? As a clear example, when current social media giants were formed, many moved fast and broke things. Perhaps they argue they are right because they could hid in the shadows of law, yet they created a great deal of harm and costly externalities for others to now clean up.
  3. Once the “right” decision is made, it can be difficult to reverse one’s own thinking even when new strong facts are available. (Emperor’s New Clothes discussion from Professor Guido Palazzo)
  4. Employees’ fear of failure can be compounded because few will freely admit they made a mistake when the offense for an honest misstep can be termination. 
  5. It can create an “us versus them” environment between stakeholders.

Ethics as “do the right thing.” is better, but…

I recently had a conversation with a member of the global ethics office for a company that has done admirably building an ethical culture. Their efforts have taken over three years and focused on their organization’s values as the blueprint for ethical behavior. However, the value “do the right thing.” still leaves ambiguity. Their code of conduct handbook laid out a scenario with the company, a customer, and a salesperson. Yet, the “do the right thing” mindset leaves open conflict for whom the right thing is done. While this organization places the customer in high regard, its repeated focus and reference to the company and shareholder throughout the handbook presents the conundrum. I have yet to hear of bonuses, titles, & prestige being awarded for not making a sale. For some CEOs, changing behavior may be seen as too long term a pay off; however, establishing a set of values explained by actionable ideas will help to ingrain “ethics” into the organization’s DNA far more quickly than one might expect.

From their IPO in 2004 to approximately May of ’19, Google held a corporate ethos of “Don’t be evil.” This was a bold and frequently hailed example as a strong standard. As time marched on and their scale and power grew, Google’s behavior made it clear that its shareholders were the ones on whom they focused. Google dropped its old motto and exchanged it with, “Do the right thing.” Once again, by whose standard is the right thing made clear. For which stakeholder does society believe Google management is going to do the right thing? Their actions say all; it is for Google. While their AI ethics statement stated some strong values, outside ethics & AI professors, along with employees, understood it was nothing more than “ethics washing.” Google stated some obvious truisms that were nothing more than platitudes. Google town halls

One final example of an ethical dilemma that brings this closer to home where normal ethics training would occur happened in the PPP loan procedures in 2020. After we shared stories, a CEO confided that to increase the likelihood his company received the PPP money; he had adjusted numbers to make them qualify for more. This was a panic moment. The stock market was down substantially, a virus was spreading out of control, and if you looked around, it seemed everyone was doing it. Bankers shared the codes for how to get more money. Do you keep the company going and get funds to pay workers? Do you shut down your business while others are getting desperately needed cash influx by saying you will keep more jobs? If you looked at who received the money, there were clearly some people that took advantage of it. Some companies gave the money back of their own accord. Some gave it back after public outrage. How many didn’t get any or enough and still struggle? Others said nothing and kept it. Maybe they think they deserved it.

This “do the right thing” definition of ethics holds promise and can work, but it too has issues. It allows more free discussions and will get people to think about the right thing, but there is still a better definition.

Ethics are best defined by asking, “how do we avoid harm?”

If we redefine ethics this way, we open our organizations to honest discussions about how our actions affect others. It encourages searching for a deeper understanding of the impact we have collectively on stakeholders. The medical profession has this at its core. Let us go back through the earlier framework with this new way of thinking.

  1. The shadows and ambiguity create spaces where forums, town halls, or mentoring can occur. If decisions fall to one leader, they can use this mindset to understand how their actions will affect others more deeply. More importantly, it allows less senior people to provide greater input for what they see as problems; this is spot on to the speak-up culture. 
  2. Whether AI design, fashion, agriculture, or other industries, reaching out to other stakeholders and not only asking for but understanding their perspectives will deliver stronger connections. If we ask these groups to participate in developing answer sets, we will get substantially better sustainable results. It will increase reputation and stakeholder well-being.
  3. Leaders do not need to be the smartest people in the room; engage others in how they see solving the issues at hand. 
  4. We are human, and mistakes will happen. Right versus wrong can create authoritarian environments in which people’s fear of failure and well-being can dramatically undermine productivity. 
  5. When your stakeholders understand that you understand, amazing things happen.

Leadership and Bravery are out there.

Former Google and tech-insiders founded the Center for Humane Technology upon realizing that what they created has been morphed into something that creates more harm than the good originally envisioned. They created the Ledger of Harms. This is perhaps one of the highest-profile and best quality discussions of what we now face as a society. If many of today’s largest social media companies, as one example, allowed open and honest discussions earlier when their technology platforms were being designed; there is a high probability that data privacy concerns, the manipulation of behavior, and potential harm to the well-being of users would not have grown so prevalent.

Ethics are about a mindset. It is like architecture and building a house. You may draft a plan of what you believe, but those with solid and well-thought reasoning behind it will have the strongest structures. If you merely say the words but have no actionable ways to follow them, those statements are just clichés. Think of the little piggy who built the home of straw. The structure will be unstable and may crumble when turmoil or crisis comes. All communications and actions must align back to the values you have established. Tying the emotional reasoning to the action creates greater authenticity for not only the organization but for the individual. This is how ethics becomes ingrained into your DNA.

Ethics covers much more than medical and business activities. The subject was founded in philosophy, but with its concentration into specialties at most universities, the subject is lucky to find its way into the proper part of the curriculum. I have spoken to the engineering field, both students and professionals. An ethical mindset spans all industries and companies, it is not just for technology, business or medicine. Each industry and organization would do well to tailor these discussions to extend to more than an hour or two a year.

An ethical mindset, in whichever fashion you care to define it, is set from the top. While the document creation can be the design of various stakeholders, the CEO and leadership must own it and lead their teams and employees by example. Having different sets of rules for different groups of people will not be tolerated any longer. You risk employee turnover, customer attrition, a decline in reputation, and possibly loss of market value. Taking care of stakeholders in this fashion does take care of your shareholders.

The Fix:

If right and wrong were that easy, then having the “ethics course” would solve unethical behavior. But in a global business community bringing pressures from various sources, the world has developed into grey tones. It has loopholes, and large incentives for success at any cost, even if by less than ethical means. We desire to have a more ethical based society, but the current definition of “right versus wrong” leaves a great deal of ambiguity and the potential conflicts.

Perhaps the greatest resource and curation of material resides within #Ethical Systems. Its genesis comes from professors in ethics, psychology, and human behavior who understand our conventional wisdom needs to change, but until now, a working formula or easier definition has not been forthcoming. If we redefine ethics to be “How do we avoid harm?” it will open the thought process to consider how our actions affect others. 

Emotional intelligence and thinking empathetically about how we design and build, and its affects upon others will substantially drive our solutions’ effectiveness. It will bring about immense value creation. It will also bring about deeper fulfillment and happiness to our own life knowing that what we created works for the good of humanity versus evil or living in the shadows.

This is a more sustainability-focused stakeholder methodology, and it will be the fuel to launch a great many businesses into orbit.

  1. Approach your organization’s values statements with actionable ways to demonstrate what those behaviors look like. Share stories of what the opposite behavior looks like as well.
  2. Expand “ethics training” to conversations with more stakeholders about how the organization’s actions impact them.
  3. Ask and then listen to understand the pressures that stakeholders face. 
  4. Connect how your values interweave with rules, regulations, and policies from regulatory agencies or internal controls. 

The intention of this is to raise the awareness that the definition of “right and wrong” for ethics is fraught with complexity and nuance that is not so easy to uphold. Reframing the definition and driving the values with reasoning and purpose will be the surest way to keep your organization and your personal well-being in top order.

About the author: Jeff Kluge is an accomplished ethics speaker and teacher of positive psychology/ happiness. Through his own personal experience, research, and lengthy studies, he discovered most of the existing educational, training, and coaching material focuses on a symptomatic approach. He developed a program entitled Holistic Ethics for Minnesota Legal Continuing Education and is looking to expand into other states and to bring this to CPA’s. He is available for speaking and consulting to organizations looking for better architecture and guidance for their building and maintenance of ethical and well-being initiatives. He can be reached at globalimpactinvestinitiative at gmail.com #ethical, #ethicalmindset, #humanetechnology, #ethicalsystems, #happiness