Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity

A recent article by Kara Swisher in the New York Times appeared under the headline Who Will Teach Silicon Valley to Be Ethical? Tech companies have been attracting a fair amount of criticism this year over their grasp of ethics. But they’re not alone in finding this area a minefield. The shareholder value view of firms, which has it that their sole purpose is to make a profit, still shapes leadership thinking in most organisations. This infects even those – like the BBC or NHS – that aren’t ostensibly profit focussed but where stripping out cost often crowds out other considerations. Where a reductionist view of purpose prevails, it’s not surprising that questions of ethics may receive scant consideration.

Kara Swisher considers various solutions including companies appointing chief ethics officers, putting in place official systems of ethics or (radical idea) chief executives stepping up to the plate to provide more leadership. She quotes an unnamed ethical consultant who complains that appointing custodians of ethics would be no more than window dressing because “we haven’t even defined ethics yet”.

Running through all of this is an assumption that ethics can be defined to delineate universal principles that clearly determine ethical or unethical behaviour in all eventualities. Coaching has been pursuing this track for some years. Every professional association of coaches has a code of ethics that its members commit to follow. And yet coaches, who are privy to ethical dilemmas more than most in business, must know that ethical choices are highly contingent on the contexts in which they arise. This is the essence of the well-known trolley problem: it’s obviously wrong to kill someone; but what if doing so saves the lives of five others?

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Taking the pulse of an organisation

If there’s one signature intervention that characterises how we work at Vogel Wakefield, it is the diagnostic enquiry into what’s going on in an organisation. This draws on skills developed over the course of our careers in journalism, strategy and coaching – and, in my case, my epistemological formation as a sociologist.

Put simply, it entails getting lots of people to talk to us about their working lives. And trying to understand what it is they need to talk about together that they’re not discussing. Many of our engagements begin this way – particularly when a team or organisation is stuck in some way, which is usually when they turn to consultants.

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The corporate good life

Socrates
Socrates
Ever since the ancient Greeks, self-awareness has been a central theme of Western philosophy and literature and there’s now scientific evidence to show that it’s essential to human health and flourishing. Recent corporate reputational crises suggest that we should now apply this understanding to organisations as much as individuals.

It seems that no organisation’s reputation is safe these days, however highly regarded it may be. Recent reputational crises have come about under the watchful – and often judgemental – eye of the media which now seems embroiled in a crisis of its own with current allegations of ‘phone-hacking at News of the World.

The response to corporate reputation-shredding varies from heads rolling and internal inquiries to calls for structural and regulatory reform of whole industries, as with banking. Any and all of this may well have its place but in the end no reform, however radical, is likely to have impact unless organisations ask some fundamental questions about their values and core purpose and how these are expressed in practice. Whenever reputational damage occurs it’s usually because there’s been some critical break in the link between stated values and behaviour. And that can only be because either there is knowing hypocrisy being practised or – much more likely – because in some key sense the organisation has lost its way and lost its sense of its true self.

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