We don't know what's next for business - but what we do know is how to help you be ready. This blog is all about anticipating the future and positioning you for success.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Sad Impact of Unethical Conduct

(I happen to live in Atlanta, GA, but the reader could easily substitute a variety of unethical events occurring all over America for the one I reference from my backyard. It’s a truly sad state of affairs. I hope by writing about it and generating some awareness and discussions we can come together to influence a change in organizational attitudes and behaviors.)

As the Atlanta Public School System prepares to open their 2011-2012 school year, the Metro Area is sadly dealing with an ethical scandal.   According to the Governor’s Investigative Report, it appears that at every level of the bureaucracy, staff members shamelessly planned and executed repeated behaviors that allegedly resulted in lying, cheating, stealing and ultimately hurting thousands of innocent children who, in some cases, did not get the educational benefit of attending school. The point I want to make is that these behaviors, and the ugly culture where they existed, appear to have resulted from: unrealistic organizational goals, a culture of retaliation and an unrealistic demand for performance results (at any cost), and a craving for public praise.

Ethics is often defined as “a philosophy principle concerned with opinions about appropriate and inappropriate moral conduct or behaviors by an individual or social group. Defined more broadly, corporate ethics can include legal compliance, ethical conduct and corporate social responsibility, all of which affect business sustainability.”

Just as the nation was learning about the details of the unbelievable activities of the Atlanta Public School System leadership, we also heard of the exposure of unethical reporting methodologies employed by the Murdoch News Corporation. Not only did this news bring embarrassment and reputation damage to Mr. Murdoch and his family, it also brought pain and suffering to the families impacted by these unethical practices and embarrassment to and questioning of political leaders in Europe. In both cases, the Superintendent of Schools Beverly Hall and the Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch refused to be accountable for the behaviors and decisions made under their leadership, offering instead weak excuses and apologies.

How would your organization rate on the ethics-o-meter? Do you feel confident that the culture your policies intend is being practiced? Are you sure people are being treated fairly and in compliance with employment regulations and practices? Can you affirm, without hesitation, that the organization’s values and philosophies are being carried out by your leaders, as well as staff members? If you can, congratulations! Especially in hard times, performing in an ethical manner can be challenging. If you hesitated, read on; I’m including some action steps to consider.

Conduct an Ethics Checkup

A 2007 article by Barbara Ley Toffler, still very relevant today, describes specific actions to create and sustain a culture of integrity that values ethical performance. She suggests:
  • Since the word "ethics" is overused, change the vocabulary. Try substituting "decency" and "responsibility" for "ethics."
  • Enron used words like "honesty" and "commitment" – and we know the end of that story. How about having staff (including you) write an essay defining what each value means to them, along with real-life examples of organizational practices that support and contradict those values? This could lead to some very interesting conversations, result in important changes, and demonstrate the organization’s commitment to ensuring ethical performance.
  • Face the music – welcome the not-so-good news as well as the good news. Accept a new mantra: There is nothing I don’t want to know.
  • Investigate potential areas of risk and plan steps to mitigate them. Follow up by attending your ethics training and ensuring it addresses these latest issues.
If you’re looking to add or update your audit process, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has the following suggestions:
  • Add the ethics audit to an existing financial/compliance audit, minimizing disruptions.
  • Be as descriptive and specific as you can about what ethics looks and sounds like. The ethics audit should be focused on a comparison between actual employee behaviors and the guidance provided in policies and procedures.
  • Tie ethics metrics to the performance review process and compensation.
  • Use a cross-functional team to assist with the ethics audit; include an HR professional, compliance manager and internal auditors or someone from legal.
  • Be on the look out for areas where improvements can be made to close gaps.
  • Be consistent in disciplining ethics violations and use the issues as a "lessons learned" opportunity for communications and training.
However you structure your audit, be clear about the distinction between ethics and compliance.

So What’s Next?

The National Business Ethics Survey published in 2010 concludes with:
  • We are experiencing an ethics bubble, which is most likely temporary. When times are tough, ethics improve. When business thrives, ethics erode.
  • Executives who don’t elevate culture to a priority, risk long-term business problems.
Ethical culture is the single biggest factor determining the amount of misconduct that will take place in a business. Individuals, groups, or organizations not adhering to ethics standards usually only get away with unethical behaviors for so long. Sooner or later something happens that brings it all to light. And when it does, leaders more than likely end up going to jail, companies are often devastated, employees and customers are usually injured in some fashion and become more skeptical, and overall, society suffers.

As our global economies expand and intertwine, we will also be faced with the practices of countries where regulations and laws guiding ethical practices don’t exist – so it’s an "anything goes" environment. Will your ethical practices be strong enough to navigate those unchartered waters?

How damaging for your company’s reputation and business success would an ethics violation reported on the evening news be? Studying a few of the many examples of unethical behavior reported in the past few months, the amazing thread to me is that so many involve more than one person – and these people, motivated by greed, or fear of retaliation, or whatever, go along with what’s being done, even though they know it’s wrong. In the case of the Atlanta Public School System, whistleblowers were threatened. Simply having an 800-number managed by a third-party would have taken that opportunity out of the hands of the unethical staff.

Here’s my assignment for you – share one idea that you have about ethical cultures and what can be done to enforce a message of "we’re serious about ethics!" Please share your thoughts and ideas on this very important topic below.

Collaborate for a Solution

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Building a Team Takes Team Work

I’m often asked to include team building objectives into the meetings, retreats and interventions I am designing for clients. In many cases, the client initially thinks about the team building request as an exercise, or a get-to-know-you mixer. What I like to share with them is that team building is not a ‘once a quarter’ event. It’s an on-going, dedicated effort by the leader and team members to be open and engaged in an effort to explore and learn more about each other. As a result of their experiences with each other it will be easier for behavioral shifts to take place to improve relationships, communications and overall workplace effectiveness.  

Although we often think of fun, games, assessments and group simulations when we hear the phrase ‘team building,’ there is no quick, one-time magic fix for improving team cohesiveness – it takes work. What’s your plan for building and enhancing the working relationships of your team members? If you’re just developing a plan, or want to enhance your existing strategies think about incorporating the following points.

It All Starts with the Leader
Yes, team building will eventually involve the entire team, but initially we need to start with the leader. This is a very important step and one that is often overlooked by management. When a team attempts to engage participants without ensuring the leader is ready, the group is bound to experience confusion and misaligned messages. Before rolling out the team building activities, skill building and revised performance metrics with the expectation that behavioral changes will take place and performance improvements will be realized the leader should be ready for the team to act differently, and therefore ready to alter his or her leadership style, Usually when there is a disconnect between the leader and the process, depending on how the leader reacts, the team members will become skeptical, suspicious and leery of the probability of success. So the first step should always be to make sure the leader is ready.

And what should the leader be ready for? The leader needs to set the tone for open and honest conversations. There needs to be a sense of trust among the team members that the leader will not take advantage of situations where members may be vulnerable – i.e., when sharing information or trying out new behaviors and skills. The leader also needs to be comfortable with a style that encourages and motivates open, collaborative, creative and diverse work and communication styles. The leader can’t ask for creativity and then belittle a team member for trying something new. Or worse, reprimand team members for failing to reach a goal as a result of trying something new. How quick do you think those team members will volunteer the next time the leader asks for an ‘out-of-the-box’ idea?

The leader is critical to the success of the team moving from Point A to Point B and beyond. It’s the leader who will demonstrate commitment to creating the corporate culture that aligns with and supports the success of the team. Executive coaching or working with a mentor are two successful methods for ensuring the leader is comfortable with who he/she is and is ready to take the team from a silo environment to one that is collaborative, respectful, professional and highly productive.

The Next Step
Once the leader is on board with loosening any "command and control" reins in favor of a shared and participatory style, these additional components to team building strategies can be incorporated:

Vision – the leader needs to be able to excite the team members about where the organization is headed. Each team member needs to understand the desired outcomes the team is responsible for and how each member’s contributions are valued.

Commitment – requires an atmosphere of trust where open discussions about expectations, fears and doubts can be shared and members can take the time to understand what they are committing to. A process designed to be inclusive allows for team members to express their excitement, as well as their concerns while they all work through the process together.

Trust – team members need confidence in their leader and the vision of where the organization is going.

Inclusion – I find the best way to engage individual team members in the process is to facilitate individual and small and large group discussions that invite members to speak openly and honestly about the realities of the workplace and to create a safe place to share ideas for improvements. The two-way communication that occurs in these exchanges must be respectful, non-judgmental, and part of a larger process for team discussion, prioritization and goal setting. Often this facilitation is best guided by an unbiased third party or an external resource.

Goal Setting – building off of the work completed by inviting all members of the team to participate, the leader is now positioned to catalyze consensus – not issue orders – about goals, actions, metrics, etc. This is a point where effective teams can often have lively discussions and begin sharing very divergent viewpoints.

Allowing these conversations to take place allows the team to resolve unanswered issues and gain knowledge and information. Ultimately consensus of the team – being able to agree to acceptance, not necessarily agree with a particular approach – is reached as team members feel they have been heard and their thoughts have been considered.

So What’s Next?
The workplace of the future needs great leaders and strong teams to be successful with technology advancements, flexible work arrangements, workforce diversity, and the fast-paced nature of global competition. In order to ensure success, workplace culture must also be aligned to support an environment that encourages the sharing and brainstorming of ideas and creativity. If you didn’t have a chance to read the January Fast Company article by Jon Kolko on the importance of culture, please do. I believe you’ll get some new ideas from it.

In addition to having a culture that supports the organization’s focus on teams, leaders must be skilled at leading work and dismiss the old concept of directing work. Organizational structures still hanging on to "silo" mentalities must be demolished and an emphasis on holistic approaches and the power of synergy and collaboration must be embraced. HR must be strategic with workforce planning and committed to hiring the skills needed to accomplish not only today’s goals, but more importantly tomorrow’s. As Jim Collins advises, moving from good to great is an evolution, not a program – it’s a long-term commitment, not a fad.

Team building is certainly an aspect of meeting and retreat planning. However, supporting those once-in-a-while encounters should be a foundation of long term nurturing and organization development strategies that ensure meaningful on-going success.