Concluding the fourth article of this nine-part series on ethics in the workplace, Luke Andreski looks at the key traits of the ethical colleague and how these might impact on career progression and personal success.
In the first two parts of this conversation about what it means to be an ethical colleague we looked at how our actions cascade outward through the organisations we work in, and how even our smallest actions have the potential to generate dramatic effects.
We saw the importance of ‘the whole of us’ to the workplace, and that each of us is far more than just a Work Delivery Unit. We are all unique, and our full personalities contribute to the overall human capital of the businesses which employ us.
This perception of individual significance is no small thing. No matter what our role within an organisation, be it CEO, front office or production line, we should walk with our heads held high.
But noteworthy implications arise from this. A key theme in ethics is that power brings with it responsibility. If we are able to impact our workplace in dramatic and unpredictable ways then we are responsible for this impact, from our smallest actions to our most significant decisions. The direct and indirect effects of our power and significance are effects we must own.
With power comes responsibility
Empowerment, significance and responsibility are inextricably linked
Our moral measure
In the first article of this series I suggested three core moral objectives on which to base our actions. One of these was a duty to nurture others.
If we are to own our contribution to the workplace, we can use this objective to take the measure of our own behaviour. We can say, “If this small action has the potential to cascade outward through the organisation in which I work, generating lasting and possibly dramatic effects – is it an action I should take?” We can ask, “If this characteristic of my personality can affect all those around me, and those around them, then is it a characteristic I want to encourage in myself?”
And we can go further. We can ask, “Am I who I want to be?”
Our moral measure
Are my contributions to the workplace moral or do they have the potential to do harm?
The building blocks which make up the persona we bring to the workplace are varied and complex. They can be combined in numerous interesting ways. This is one source of our individuality. But these building blocks – our emotions, instincts, character traits – also derive from tens of millions of years of evolution, and, more recently, from aeons as hunter-gatherers out in the wilderness.
Hunter-gatherer instincts are useful success factors in a hunter-gather existence – but are less well suited to the modern world. Only some lend themselves to moral outcomes.
I’ll hazard a list of those traits we might wish to encourage in ourselves – and also in others – in the ethical workplace:
- Kindness, consideration
- A sense of fairness
The desirability of these evolved human traits in enabling cooperation and sustaining cohesion is self-evident, but they also have wider implications of particular importance. I’ll mention just three.
If you are thoughtful, empathic and considerate, then you will also be a person who strives not to lie to others. Honesty is both a moral imperative and has tangible benefits for the workplace (see here).
Our natural instincts towards cooperation, compassion and thoughtfulness also demand of us a further character trait: consistency. If we are to treat our colleagues with compassion and kindness then a consistency of compassion and kindness is entailed. Erratic and unpredictable kindness is not really kindness; it is more akin to manipulation. Consistency is also central to moral logic. For morality to work you cannot cherry-pick when you want to be moral. (I discuss the logic of morality in greater detail in my book Intelligent Ethics).
A commitment to our work and our workplace derives from the core moral objective to ‘nurture others’, and is sustained by our evolved traits of honesty, consideration and a sense of fairness. It means that the contractual bond you form with an employer, both tacit and explicit, is one that you will commit yourself to, to the best of your ability. After all, it is only fair, considerate and honest to do so.
Further, in agreeing your contract of employment, you also commit yourself, indirectly, to your colleagues: to seek to further the objectives of the business and thus to benefit not only yourself but also those with whom and for whom you work.
Honesty, consistency and commitment are key outcomes of our morally beneficial evolved human traits
Who we are
I hope, with the above characteristics in mind, that you are beginning to see the ethical colleague within yourself. The instincts and emotions I describe above are present in all of us. They are the building blocks of human nature. If we wish to be ethical, then these are qualities we will want to reinforce in ourselves and encourage in others.
There are of course less useful hunter-gatherer traits we will wish to discourage. I’ll hazard another list:
| Self-serving ambition|
These traits may have delivered benefits in a less populous, less socially interconnected world – but in the modern world and the modern workplace the outcomes they lead to are unlikely to be moral. They are potential building blocks of the human personality, but they are building blocks we must strive not to utilise in the selves we create.
Some aspects of our evolved nature are useful and to be encouraged; others must be diverted, commuted or ‘re-trained’
The successful psychopath?
A question I promised to address at the start of our discussion is this: “Does ethical behaviour lead to or detract from professional success?”
Let’s begin by considering a disturbing fact. Approximately one in five CEOs is likely to be a psychopath. This contrasts vividly with roughly 1% psychopathy in the general population.
Yet psychopathic behaviour is diametrically opposed to the positive traits and instincts outlined above, and is far more likely to be aligned with the negative ones. Common characteristics of a psychopath are:
- Lack of conscience, guilt or empathy
- Superficial emotions
- Impulsivity; lack of self-control
- Manipulative; often charming
- Unable to accept responsibility for the consequences of your actions.
But CEOs at first glance appear to epitomise business success!
Should we conclude, then, that psychopathy is better at delivering success in the modern workplace than morality?
I’ll answer this important challenge in two parts. Firstly, being a CEO or any other rapid ascender of organisational hierarchies is a narrow definition of success. Most people apply a much broader range of success criteria when thinking about their jobs. For example:
- Being liked
- Having friends
- Feeling your work counts – that you’re making a real contribution
- Being appreciated
- Enjoying your work
- Being good at your work; feeling ‘job satisfaction’
- Feeling happy or content or fulfilled at work
- Being proud of what you do.In fact, if you take financial reward out of the equation, then, given the choice, most of us would much rather put a tick against all the above than against the single line:
- Got to the top.
Ethical behaviour and ethical colleagues sustain happy and collaborative environments, conducive to fulfilment and friendship – while the success generated by psychopathic ambition is often short-lived and conducive to dysfunctional workplaces. Bullying, disrespect and autocracy characterise those workplaces dominated by psychopathic colleagues (see here).
So, the pragmatic case for seeking to develop and act upon our moral traits is that it makes us happier; it makes us nicer colleagues to work with; and it earns the liking and respect of those around us. And in progressive ethical workplaces these are the traits you will see promoted and rewarded – with the immoral traits of ruthless ambition and self-interest now recognised as detrimental to the long-term wellbeing of the business. (Please note however that being a CEO can also be the wonderful achievement of a moral colleague!)
Our final answer to the challenge of ‘successful psychopathy’ is of course based on ethics. Morality vs. success is a false dichotomy – but if you have a choice between being moral or being successful we all know there is really only one option…
The moral one.
In my next article I discuss the important question, “How do I manage unethical behaviour?”
Read more articles on our Phase 3 Insights page
About the Author:
Luke Andreski is a writer with over thirty years’ experience in the IT industry, specialising in People Technology implementation projects and change management. More recently he has focused on moral philosophy and psychology, with a particular interest in business leadership and management ethics.
He is currently working in conjunction with Phase 3 on a series of articles investigating Ethics in the Workplace.