A colleague and I had disagreed many times, but on this point we both nodded: Most executives are ruthless.
Statistics can't validate personal observations. But here is some data:
- A 2015 survey of consumer trust levels worldwide by the public relations firm Edelman found that "the number of trusting countries fell to the lowest level ever recorded."
- A 2015 study, "You Scratch His Back, He Scratches Mine and I'll Scratch Yours," out of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management (reported in ScienceDaily) found that "although reciprocity fosters trust and cooperation it can also create an interlocked circle of deception." The real-world example: Executives who sit on each other's boards and overpay each other - regardless of the impact on shareholders.
- A 2015 survey by the U.S. government of all federal employees found that only 1 out of 2 employees believe "my organization's senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity." Just 61% agreed "I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal."
- A 2013 survey by the Ethics Resource Center showing that 41% of employees had seen "unethical or illegal misconduct on the job."
- A 2012 survey of U.S. and U.K. financial professionals by Labaton Sucharow LLP revealed that 24% of those surveyed believed that "the rules may have to be broken in order to be successful" and 26% had "observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace." Additionally, "16% of respondents, would commit a crime–insider trading–if they could get away with it."
Bringing my organizational development training to the discussion, I guessed as usual that seemingly dysfunctional behavior was actually functional:
- "Moral" types are difficult for the organization to control, because they serve the organization only second to their personal sense of what is right and wrong.
- Executives not predominantly driven by morality at work are easier to direct, because they prioritize the organization's goals over their personal principles.
It should be noted, of course, that morality differs for every individual. So having an executive driven by their personal beliefs may actually create more problems than one thinks. Similarly, having more malleable executives may create more harmony in the workforce because they are not driven to live up to (or impose) any ideals of right or wrong on others.
Nevertheless, amorality at work is dangerous. Lacking a reliable barometer for right and wrong, it is theoretically possible for someone to try to get away with just about anything. And if the leaders of the organization have zero universal, significant, unselfish principles or values to guide them, the potential harm to employees, stakeholders and the community is incalculable.
Some may argue that contemporary trends in leadership serve to counter the tendency to amorality. For in today's business environment - where success depends on eliciting brain-power and heart-feeling from employees - it has become conventional to emphasize the carrot and not the stick.
But it can also be argued that rampant economic insecurity leads professionals to work, simply, for whoever will pay them and pay them the most. And in a system where the worker is bound by financial need to an employer, that individual must play by the employer's rules or face unemployment.
Normally this means that you will get hired, and you will be retained, if you serve your bosses without question and you serve them well. You are paid to honor the bureaucracy just as much as you're paid to contribute your particular talents to it.
The easy answer is to tell individuals to fight this. "Only you control your own behavior," is the pop psychology mantra, and this is true. But it is too easy to ask each person to fight what is essentially a larger, social, institutional, often impenetrable reality. The facts are the facts: People must eat and they must feed their families.
The moral challenge of success, therefore, is not only or even predominantly for the individual employee. It is primarily a demand on those at the very top of the organization. It is their job to stop perpetuating a system in which career growth requires blind obedience to corporate goals. "There are some things we just don't do," should be the credo.
In short, live by real values - don't just pay lip service to "the brand."
If it doesn't make rational sense to be moral in a money economy, consider this. A lot of people think that there exists a higher power. Certainly it's hard to explain why some CEOs succeed despite doing everything stupidly, and others fall on their asses despite outstanding skills, extensive education and a track record that puts most of the world to shame.
Life is full of illusions, and in the short term it may seem like expedience is the way - rationality - the controlled organization run by "killers."
But the long view is what counts.
From the perspective of Heaven - as well as employees - corporate values are a winning strategy.
Create them intelligently and sincerely. Hire people who are them. Put them on your emails. Print them on your business cards.
Hold an awards ceremony, every year, to recognize the good people you've hired.
Copyright 2015 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. Dr. Blumenthal is founder and president of BrandSuccess, a corporate content provider, and co-founder of All Things Brand. The opinions expressed are her own.