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Ethical behavior is just as crucial as effective leadership in persuading stakeholders to cooperate and support the work of the project manager — and therefore contributes to successful project outcomes.
What is less well understood is the crucial role leaders play in establishing the ethical culture of their organizations.
One key direction ethical leadership takes is indirectly — across the hierarchy, to peers of the leader. There is also a cascading effect, with the ethics of a senior leader influencing a subordinate leader's behaviors. In turn, ethical conduct trickles down to the subordinate leader's team culture, and so on down the hierarchy.
As with any cascade, figuratively speaking, the flow is always downhill. An October 2012 study among more than 2,500 serving military personnel published in the Academy of Management journal supports two key findings from various business studies, including one published in the Harvard Business Review and one by Boston University professor Tamar Frankel:
The ethical culture of a team is unlikely to be any stronger than the standard set by the team leader, and is usually slightly less ethical.
The ethical culture of a less senior leader is unlikely to be any stronger than the standard set by the senior leader, and is usually slightly less ethical.
In short, the ethical framework of an organization is set at the top and standards can be expected to be similar or deteriorate as you move down the hierarchy and out into the teams.
Note that these studies were not looking at extreme ethical behaviors, such as dishonesty or discrimination — breaching these standards would offend most people. The research above focused on subtle but important aspects of ethics, similar to those found in the "aspirational" sections of PMI's Code of Ethics. These types of behaviors encourage individuals to develop as professionals, create a great place to work and urge external stakeholders to support the team.
The practical implications of these findings are that leaders need to "walk the talk" by engaging in ethical behavior. They need to create a strong ethical culture in their teams by providing the tools needed to help team members behave ethically, on a reinforced basis.
Some tools to inject ethics into the team culture include:
Positive reinforcement, such as praising people for notifying you of a mistake they have made.
Encouragement of open reporting of "bad news" in any form.
Establishment of systems that strongly encourage ethical behaviors, such as refusing to allow derogatory remarks in any form (jokes included). This would require backing by formal systems, such as clearly defined and protected "whistle blower" procedures.
Once created, an ethical culture in your team can be expected to have a strong effect sideways and downward within the organization — and outward to the wider stakeholder community.
How do you encourage ethical behavior among your peers and teams?