What is Ethical Leadership?

in PODCAST

How do you define ethics? People have been trying to do this for millennia and we still don’t have a definitive answer. But what about ethical leadership? What does that look like?

When you think of ethics, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? But what about ethical leadership? What does that look like? (Episode 11)

A 480 PODCAST

What is Ethical Leadership?

31 minutes | October 16, 2019

00:00:00 00:00

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When you think of ethics, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? How do you define it? People have been trying to do this for millennia and we still don’t have a definitive answer. But what about ethical leadership? What does that look like? In this podcast, Craig Irons chats with Dr. Liz Ritterbush, an expert in ethical behavior and business ethics, about just that.

Craig Irons:                        

Hello, again, and welcome to the Leadership 480 podcast from DDI. I'm your host today, Craig Irons. Today, we are talking about a subject that relates to the 480 minutes every leader has every day to make an impact, and that is the subject of ethical behavior.

To talk about that today, we have a very special guest. We have Dr. Liz Ritterbush, a consultant here at DDI, who is based in Atlanta, and she also is an expert in ethical behavior and ethics in the business world.

Liz, thanks so much for joining us today. I'm really looking forward to this conversation.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah, thank you for having me.

Craig Irons:                        

So, let's kind of jump in here. You've done a great deal of research on the topic of ethical behavior. And so I guess, just wondering, what is it about that area that you find so interesting, and what are some of the areas you've explored?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

I think with ethics it's something that always comes up, and it always comes up in media. It's very top-of-mind for so many people, but then there's this unsolvable question there. It's so gray. People have been talking about it for thousands of years. What is ethical?

I quoted Aristotle and Kant in my research. We're quoting things from hundreds of years ago, and no one's come to agreement. So, it's this giant puzzle that fascinates me and really gets conversations going, and really gets people thinking about what other people are doing, what they're doing, what is society doing?

Craig Irons:                        

Wow. So, I understand, then, why you find it so interesting. I had never thought of it in those terms. So when most of us think about ethical behavior, we equate it with the degree to which someone is honest, both in what they say and in what they do. Is it really that simple, or are there more dimensions to it?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

I think to a certain extent, that does cover. I mean, that covers a lot of what we think about, generally. But if we look at that textbook definition, one of my favorite definitions looks at whether something is both socially and legally acceptable. Is it acceptable based on the social norms and based on the rules of the society?

For example, driving five miles over the speed limit, most people do it. It happens all the time, but is it technically against the rule? Yes. So, to a certain extent, driving five miles over the speed limit is in that gray zone of being unethical, because there's that two-part definition there.

Craig Irons:                        

Now you're making me feel guilty about my driving habits, Liz.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

I never said what my driving habits were.

Craig Irons:                        

That's a great example. As we all know, human beings are very complex. Some may never tell a lie, yet cheat when playing a board game or what have you. So, I guess that sort of raises the question, and maybe even back to what you were just talking about with the driving example.

Is it possible for a person to be both an ethical person and an unethical person sort of at the same time? And I guess the question I'm ultimately asking here is, to what extent is ethical behavior almost situational?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah, and I think that there are certain people that are more likely to engage in ethical situations or be more ethical in certain contexts than in other contexts. One of the things that I talk about and one of the things I'm very passionate about is that we might not be predicting ethics entirely in the right way. We tend to think that people who are rule-focused, they're always going to be ethical.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

But will they be ethical when they're dealing with another person? Are there rules, really, when they're dealing with that other person?

And my research has actually found that what predicts ethics in a rule-based situation, let's say accounting, and what predicts ethics in an interpersonal social situation one-on-one, two completely different things, and you can be high in one and low in the other.

Craig Irons:                        

Interesting. Tell me a little bit more about that. So, you mentioned how someone can be very rule-abiding, but still in a way be unethical. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah. So, I call it the dilemma of the conscientious Machiavellian. To get a little bit into that, most of us have heard of being rule-abiding or conscientious.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Common nomenclature. But for Machiavellianism, that's a new term for most people, it comes from this dark triad or dark side of psychology. And these are the people that are self-centered, manipulative; they tend to manipulate entire groups, entire rooms of people, not just manipulation one-on-one. And you can be a very conscientious, very hardworking, very detail-oriented manipulative individual.

Craig Irons:                        

I see.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

And for those individuals on paper, everything may look like they're doing everything ethically, but they're very quick to throw someone else under the bus.

Craig Irons:                        

I think I can speak for all of our listeners when I say, we all have encountered people like that.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yes.

Craig Irons:                        

So let me just jump right to asking you, any advice for dealing with someone like that?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

I think, as someone who researches this, that it's hard, because you really want to trust everyone that you're working with. And I think that you should trust everyone, but to a certain extent, you have to be cautious and realize that some people are wired this way.

Sometimes you have to say, "Okay, there have to be boundaries there. Let's protect myself and protect the others." Because, really, if they're going to walk all over you, they're going to walk all over other people as well.

Craig Irons:                        

Trust.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Craig Irons:                        

So, is trust sort of, I guess you could say, a byproduct of behaving ethically? Or is a situation where a high level of trust among a group is critically important, does that tend to promote or encourage all the members of the group to be more ethical?

Is there anything to that? Have you looked at that at all?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah. And I think ethics and trust go hand in hand. One of the things that people are looking for in organizations today is transparency, and that goes with that trust.

If you have the transparency, they can trust the decisions coming down from the top. They can trust the policies.                               

I definitely think that there's something to that. At the same time, here's where the gray area comes in, the ethical dilemma, the issues, because being too transparent, being too open, then you can have these manipulators insert themselves.

Craig Irons:                        

Right, right. We're talking to Dr. Liz Ritterbush, a consultant here at DDI and an expert in the field of ethics.

Liz, I know another area you've studied is a concept some of our listeners may not be familiar with, and this is servant leadership. What is servant leadership, and what's its relationship to ethics?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

So, servant leadership came out in the 1960s, '70s, somewhere in there, by really a consultant at that time, who was tired of looking at these transactional leadership theories. And it deals with the leader being a servant to their subordinates.

Their first concern is the people that are working underneath them and working around them, and it's less objective-based. So, instead of being focused on the business, they're focused on everything below them, and making sure helping to develop those individuals.

A lot times, there's this pro-sociality or this altruism that's there with these servant leaders, so we get more of that ethics, again, where they're being... I'm trying to think of how to say this. They're doing things in the service of others, and that might include being ethical and being transparent, and being open with those individuals.

Craig Irons:                        

Okay. You used the term, I believe it was, "pro-sociality."

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Pro-sociality.

Craig Irons:                        

What does that mean?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Being pro-social, doing things for other people.

Craig Irons:                        

Oh yes, okay.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah. One of the things in psychology, when we're looking at, for instance, psychopathy or psychopaths, we've raised that as antisocial, so the flip side is true. Pro-social is doing things for others.

Craig Irons:                        

I see, okay. Okay, thanks for clarifying that.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah.

Craig Irons:                        

The subject of ethics and ethical behavior in business sort of, I guess, recycles of being sort of front-of-mind. It seems like it's been really front-of-mind I would say probably over the last 20 years or so, probably dating back to, well, Enron, which is probably the most notorious example of an organization that was really destroyed by a total failure of ethics.

But one thing organizations have learned and learned the hard way, Enron being a perfect example of that, is that when their executives or even their leaders or employees at lower levels behave unethically, it can prove extremely costly; think of the fines they incur or lost business, the stock price plummeting, what have you. But are there other costs that we may not automatically think about that can result from unethical behavior?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yes. I think in today's climate, especially, millennials are looking for organizations that they can trust. And, it's not just for spending; it's not just for purchasing; it's for going to work there. They want to feel that their work has an impact, has meaning, and they want to trust the company that they're working for.

In today's market where we're really trying to find the best employees, competition is high for these employees, they have the skills, they're innovative, but we don't want to lose that, those individuals. We don't want to lose that talent pool.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

That's one of the side effects that I think people don't really realize, how it can jeopardize their reputation for decades.

Craig Irons:                        

So, it's almost, what you're describing is, it's really important for an organization to be perceived as ethical if it wants to attract and retain talent?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Exactly.

Craig Irons:                        

Okay.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Exactly, especially in today's environment.

Craig Irons:                        

And coming back to trust, if people work for an organization they feel they can trust, work with people they feel they can trust, work for a manager they feel they can trust, that will most definitely impact performance, or at the very least engagement, correct?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yes. Yes, employees are going to be more engaged when they feel they can be more open, they can be more secure, they can express what they want to express and really call things out.

Craig Irons:                        

It makes sense. So, organizations, they must see the benefit of being an ethical organization and having a culture that embraces and promotes ethical behavior. Given the value of it and all the things they can gain, how can an organization go about creating and sustaining that culture?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

There are a few different ways. We've talked about there's the person component, and there's that context component that you mentioned. Some companies are doing integrity tests, and they're doing it exceptionally well, where they're filtering for personalities, or they're hiring personalities that are going to be more ethical. Examples of industries may include police officers, firefighters, those types of things. But that's not enough.

We have to make sure that we give them a business context that allows them to be ethical. We have to make sure we're ensuring that culture of trust. We have to make sure that we have systems in place so that people can report if they see something going on, or if they hear about something, and they feel comfortable there won't be any repercussions. They won't be excluded for doing something like being a whistleblower.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

There's so many negative connotations there, so it really has to be kind of a multifaceted approach. And there's a lot to say for the personality component. Some people are really afraid of measuring personality and saying, "Oh, I don't want to look for ethical individuals. I don't want to filter out based on personality."

If that context is strong enough, if that organization is strong enough with the culture and the climate, then the personality won't matter so much. Prime example, research has been done previously that found psychopaths make great surgeons.

Craig Irons:                        

What?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Psychopaths make great surgeons. I mean, think about it. If you're going in for surgery, do you want that surgeon really thinking about whether or not you're going to recover quickly, or if you're going to be able to make it to dinner the next day, or how it's going to affect you? You don't want them empathizing with you. You want them treating you like a job. You want them to distance themselves, to a certain extent.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Right? You don't want them to be homicidal maniacs. I mean, we know this to be true.

Craig Irons:                        

True.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

But there are also rules and regulations in place.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

If something were to happen, if they were to do something, they'd lose everything. They'd lose their licensure. They'd lose, I mean, everything.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

So, there are strict rules in place. Now, that's not to say that all surgeons are psychopaths. That's not what I'm trying to say, but we find certain things like that, where sometimes the personality component doesn't really matter as much because the context is so strong.

Craig Irons:                        

You just said some things that I want to dig into over the next few questions. And we're talking, today, to Dr. Liz Ritterbush, a consultant here at DDI based in Atlanta, and also an expert on ethics in the workplace.

So, we talked about culture and how organizations, the importance of having an ethical culture. To what extent is behaving ethically about the individual as opposed to the organization? And does that make it more challenging for organizations as they're trying to instill an ethical culture?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

I think, again, to default to the classic consultant speak, it depends. There are definitely some situations where personality is going to be more important, the context. Right? There are some situations where ethics may not matter as much, or the rules may not matter as much, they may not seem to matter as much.

Holding open the door for your colleague, is anyone tracking that? No. Does it matter if your colleague has everything full, that their hands are loaded down and they can barely open the door? Do you report to that colleague? Do you work with that colleague? Do you? You know?

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

So, it depends on the situation for so many things. I do think that companies with very strong cultures can really drive ethics in their organization, and it really seems to have this almost viral effect throughout the organization.

Craig Irons:                        

So, that kind of leads to a logical question. And you touched on this a minute ago, but it seems like the best way to have an ethical organization with an ethical culture is to hire ethical people. So, that being the case, is there a way to actually and accurately test to determine if someone is ethical during the selection process?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

It's so hard. It's so hard, because if you're thinking about the high-stakes nature of applying to a job and taking a test, there's a lot of reason there to lie if you really want that job. And a lot of the integrity tests that I've seen are pretty transparent, where it's asking a question like, "Have you ever taken $20 out of the cash register?"

Who would say yes to that when they're applying for a job? I don't know anyone that would. Well, maybe. I hope I don't know anyone that would, but I think that there are certain traits that you can look out for, and there are certain traits that you can foster.

For example, you want someone that is courageous and outspoken, when they need to be. Doesn't mean they have to be an extrovert, but they have to be willing to speak up. They also have to be authentic.

Back to that authenticity component that you mentioned at the beginning, the more authentic, the more honest they are, the more likely they are to engage in ethical behavior. You combine that with the courage, and they're going to speak out about ethical behavior. And then, because we know that whistleblowers tend to be kicked out, right?

Craig Irons:                        

Yeah.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

I also try to look for some type of social balance, because we want them being authentic. We want them standing up, but we want it tempered by emotional intelligence.

Craig Irons:                        

How so?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

If you're just instantly running in and saying, "I saw this. It has to be unethical," making a big stink about it but maybe you interpreted the situation wrong, and you don't take that time to step back and think about it, which emotional intelligence allows you to do, really thinking through the situation and how to best approach it, then you're going to upset a lot of people.

Craig Irons:                        

Sure.

Craig Irons:                        

So, let's keep going on that point. The term that's become commonplace in the U.S., especially since 9/11 is, if you see something, say something. And you've touched on this in a couple of your responses, but should that apply to us when we see others behaving unethically? And I guess what you're indicating is, it's really kind of a gray area, isn't it?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, and that's part of why these ethical situations, they're called dilemmas.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Where dealing with this, is one option better than the other? If I call this out, how bad is that infraction? What will it do to the other individual? We're wading all of these different factors every time we make a decision.

We're thinking how it's going to affect us, how it's going to affect them, how it's going to affect the people around them, what's the payoff for each individual. And at the same time, as an ethics researcher, I do believe that if you see something, you should say something, or at least think it through.

Craig Irons:                        

Right, right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Think through the situation, and if you're saying something, maybe it's not going to the top level in the organization. Maybe it's going to someone that you trust, that you know and asking them, "Hey, what would you do in this situation? How would you process this?"

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Not even calling it out as unethical, just thinking it through to see. And then, okay, maybe it does need to be escalated to the next level.

Craig Irons:                        

Right. I'm thinking of a specific example from when I was a kid watching the Brady Bunch. Did you watch the Brady Bunch growing up?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

A little, yeah.

Craig Irons:                        

Do you remember the episode where I believe it was Bobby, who became the hall monitor, and then he started reporting all of his friends for all their little infractions, and everyone wound up turning on him? And so, when you were talking about the emotional intelligence, that made me think of that. I think some of our listeners will probably remember that, as well.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Well, then again, it's that driving five miles over the speed limit.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Are you going to report everyone that drives five miles over the speed limit?

Craig Irons:                        

We would all be in big trouble, wouldn't we?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Right? So, how do you cross that line? Is it both socially and legally unacceptable?

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Then maybe we need to escalate it if it's hitting both parts of that definition.

Craig Irons:                        

Yes. Yeah, that's a really great way to think about it. And switching gears from talking about the ethics of others to discussing as we as individuals should behave, and I think you've almost hit on some of these, but are there any sort of quick, hard, and fast rules to guide our behavior, to help keep us on track as ethical people and as ethical leaders?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

I think there are a few things that we can do to become more ethical. One, is to really sit through and think through things, really make our decisions carefully. Decision making is key. Ethics is a realm of decision making. There's also, it can be trained. You can enroll in an ethics course at your local university.

Craig Irons:                        

Really?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Or read up on it.

Craig Irons:                        

Sure.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Ethics is a skill, a lot like other decision-making types of skills. You can learn how to carefully make these decisions and be more conscious and aware of them. So, my advice to any leader would be to, in the moment, step back, think through things. But then if you want to develop yourself in this area, seek it out. There are ways of doing it.

Craig Irons:                        

From your perspective, is there something a leader may commonly do that they personally don't perceive as unethical, yet others might? And just thinking of an example, let's say you're a leader, and you have a team of people, and you know some sensitive information maybe about some layoffs coming or what have you, and you are not at liberty to share that information; yet, your team members might perceive that, the fact that you weren't totally honest with them, as the fact that you were misleading them in some fashion.

That seems like that obviously would put a leader in a tough spot, but are there sort of the situations that we sort of have to put ourselves in other people's shoes and think, "Okay, even though I think this is ethically correct, how is this going to be perceived by others?"

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah, and I think that emotional intelligence, empathy really comes into play there. We really need to have that empathy, thinking through when we're making these decisions for our employees or on behalf of our employees, deciding to protect them from this information but at the same time, going back to building that culture of trust, building that ethical climate.

If your employees really trust you, and they know that you're ethical, 90% of the time, they know that you're really thinking through, and in this case, following the rules. Maybe you're deciding not to let them know because you need to approach those people that are being laid off, individually.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Maybe what you're doing is ethical. If they trust you, they might a little offended, but then they'll recover quickly.

Craig Irons:                        

Just sort of boiling all this down, we've covered a lot of ground here, Liz. Is there one piece of advice above all others that you would offer to our listeners about being an ethical leader?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Truly, I think it all comes down to thinking through your situation. At the end of the day, really thinking through the choices that you're making and not jumping to a snap judgment, at the same time, thinking of how it doesn't affect you but affects everyone else.

Craig Irons:                        

Yeah, that sounds like great advice. So, Liz, one of the questions that we ask all of our guests, or just about all of our guests since this is a leadership-focused podcast, can you share a moment of leadership that had an impact on you, from your experience?

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah, and it's funny. This is a hard question, and I work in the leadership space, and I consider myself to be lucky. I've had so many leaders and mentors that have really taken me under their wing and really developed me. More recently, however, I had a leadership moment with more of a colleague. They were project lead, and they were setting me up to start taking over a project with a client.

Craig Irons:                        

Right.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

And there was a lot of coaching involved there, one-on-one coaching, having meetings. I would present to the client. We'd get out of the meeting; we'd debrief. During one of these debriefing sessions, and I had had, I think I had just gotten my Ph.D. at the time, and I was still nervous. I kept saying, "Just... I'm just saying... Just so you know," and my colleague called me out on it. He said, "You have a Ph.D. You're here for a reason. You're an expert. You know you know this information. Don't give them any reason to doubt you. You're a woman. They're always going to doubt you. Don't give them a reason to go for it. Have confidence and push through."

And I still, when I'm presenting, when I'm leading meetings, when I'm working on projects, even when I'm writing emails now, I think through, "Am I engaging in a self-deprecating word use? I know what I'm here for. I know I have the expertise. Let's push through and do it." And it's all because of that one moment and that one piece of feedback.

Craig Irons:                        

That's fantastic. Thanks for sharing that.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah.

Craig Irons:                        

We've been talking to Dr. Liz Ritterbush, a consultant at DDI based in our Atlanta office, who is also an expert on ethics in the workplace. Liz, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Liz Ritterbush:          

Yeah, thank you for having me.

Craig Irons:                        

I'm Craig Irons, inviting you to join us again for the Leadership 480 podcast, and reminding you: Make every moment of leadership count.

Join the conversation on Twitter! Use #Leadership480 to answer what your most impactful moment as a leader has been and what you’ve learned from it.