I’ve Been Thinking About Ethical Responsibilities…


Do not, under any circumstances, tell a lie – of either commission or omission.  Do not stretch the truth, exaggerate, or make ___ up to get out of trouble or make yourself look good…
Do not attempt to project different images depending on whom you’re with.  People can spot inauthenticity…  Show up as yourself consistently.  Unless, of course, you are a jackass.

Susan Scott, Fierce Leadership:  A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today

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I’ve been thinking about ethical responsibilities…

You remember ethics don’t you: the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation. — Moral duty and obligation.  Duty…obligation. In other words this is important stuff here.

First, let me state the obvious. To put it in terms well known from the Bible, “all have sinned, and fall short…”  Including me.  And, I say with confidence but no mean-spirited intent, including you.  So, yes, we all have some work to do in this part of our lives.

But it seems to me that falling short has hit epidemic proportions these days.  I don’t know where to put the blame.  Is it the argument culture that Deborah Tannen saw coming?  (see this earlier post here).  Is it exacerbated by the constant spin required on today’s cable news, which flows from this argument culture mentality?  (see my partly tongue-in-cheek Campbell Brown for CEO! here).  Is it our lawyer-laden era, in which if anyone with any power admits fault, then the liability becomes too great?

Or is it a true, genuine, really, really alarming decline in ethical standards?

I don’t know.

But this is what I think I do know.  We have more and more mistakes being made (from the mining disaster to the Toyota problems to the oil rig disaster) where there seems to be a pattern emerging:

• a serious problem occurs;
• part of the cause of the problem is some form of negligence;
• evidence surfaces that warnings were given, but not adequately heeded;
• and then when the full disaster hits, there is some form of denial and shift of blame  (“it’s not my fault!”)

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande describes how for most of human history, most big problems were issues of ignorance.  We really did not know what caused disease, we really did not know how to successfully treat a heart attack.  But the pendulum has now swung to the other problem:  human ineptitude is now a bigger problem than human ignorance.  We know more – we just don’t deliver on what we know.  And, as Gawande states:

Failures of ignorance we can forgive.  If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort.  But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.

In the latest illustration of this problem, we have a lack of transparency by BP.  They have a genuine, whopping disaster on their hands. The ripple effects are massive, from lives lost, to jobs lost, to the environment damaged, possibly on a massive scale.  But as we follow the BP response, we see the pattern I described above, and during the aftermath we discover that it has taken a lot of pressure – a lot of pressure! – to even get video released of the oil leak for scientists to study.

We all, of course, could give many more examples – from plagiarism by famous authors (there are substantial new plagiarism discoveries regarding now quite discredited author Gerald Posner) to failings of elected officials in categories too numerous to enumerate.

But it really does boil down to this:  our ethical responsibilities are not being treated responsibly.

I’ve grown fond of this phrase:  “you get what you pay attention to.” I think it’s time for companies, and organizations, and elected officials – really, all of us – to pay a lot more attention to our ethical responsibilities.

One thought on “I’ve Been Thinking About Ethical Responsibilities…

  1. You have really hit a hot button of mine. The moral decay in this country and the world is overwhelming. Reported statistics of people “padding” their resume is as high as 90%. Cheating in school is supposedly at an all time high. Where do these people get their examples? I believe it has everything to do with out political and corportate leadership. Sound bites, emotional reaction, “having to be right”, personal greed are only a few of the driving forces. All of this is not new, I just think it has come out in the open and therefore influences those who listen.

    I hope that the pendulum will start to swing in the other direction if more of our leaders will accept their responsibility and value moral behavior–including their own. It would be nice if the securities market would recognize and value it as well. Until the leaders place a value on moral behavior, I don’t think we can expect much change.

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