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Four Steps to a More Ethical Organization

By William Seidman and Michael McCauley

Do you consider your organization to be ethical? Many organizations have a moral foundation that enables them to make ethically sound decisions even when faced with adverse short-term consequences. However, as has recently been seen on Wall Street and in other places (e.g., Toyota) too many organizations are quick to put immediate economic gain before ethics. While the unethical actions may be expedient, they ultimately contaminate both the employees and the organization. Maintaining high ethical standards is the only way to produce sustainable success.

Do you want your organization to be consistently ethical? Using recent scientific breakthroughs, it is now possible to efficiently enhance the ethics of almost any organization. A simple process of setting a goal and then motivating, sustaining, and scaling ethical behaviors has produced numerous success stories like these:

• Pharmacy managers in a large retail chain think of themselves as “a critical part of the family emergency response system,” going out of their way to ensure that their patients get the correct medicines and care (instead of just selling prescriptions).

• Sales people in an advertising firm that serves small and medium businesses see themselves as “helping customers achieve their personal life goals” (instead of just selling advertising).

So how can an organization create the ethical foundation that inspires this type of response?

1. Set the Bar
First, use your organization’s “positive deviants” to establish a clear, specific standard of ethical values, attitudes and behaviors. Positive deviants are highly respected individuals who are consistent top performers and can typically be identified simply by asking management who stands out. They model the ideal ethical attitudes and best practices all others should achieve and are therefore the primary creators and preservers of an organization’s ethics. Positive deviants are motivated by a commitment to ethically creating a “social good” for their customers and for their organization.

2. Motivate Ethics
Second, guide all personnel to firmly embrace the goal of ethically achieving the positive deviant’s social good. When a positive deviant’s social good, or the inspiration behind their work, is presented to others in an empowering manner, it can be contagious for an organization. It naturally and organically spreads the commitment to the social good, and its ethical foundation, quickly and efficiently.

More specifically, once a strong understanding of the positive deviants’ social good has been established, it can be packaged into a short, emotionally powerful statement that excites and empowers other employees. To be successful, the social good must be presented in a way that creates a sense of honor and dignity (i.e., fair process). It must also cause people to naturally visualize themselves as having the same personal standards and commitment as the positive deviants (i.e., positive visualization). When these occur, people quickly embrace the positive deviants’ perspectives, improving the ethics of the entire organization.

3. Sustain Ethics
Next, ensure that the commitment to ethics is sustainable, even in the face of contrary pressures. True ethical behavior is profound and long term. It is a way of doing business that is so engrained in the organization that people cannot imagine functioning any other way.

The most effective means of generating this depth of commitment comes from the neuroscience principle “neurons that fire together wire together.” All profound learning is a change to the underlying neural structure of the brain that occurs when neurons fire together around consistent concepts. If the concepts are focused around the positive deviant ethics, new learning occurs that can be so complete that people do not even recognize they were ever any other way.

What makes neurons fire together? The key to achieve this organizational depth is simple — practice, practice, practice. Everything the organization does needs to exercise and reinforce the mental commitment to ethics.

4. Scale Ethics
Finally, engage a critical mass of the organization quickly to ensure that ethics pervades all aspects of the organization and becomes a true reflection of the organization as a whole. At the same time, individuals must display ethical behaviors in ways that are unique to their function and personality.

Persuasive technology — technology designed to “change what people believe and do” — that incorporates the principle of mass customization can facilitate widespread commitment to an organization’s ethics. Because this type of technology can touch many people simultaneously, individuals function more ethically and the organization as a whole builds a lasting foundation for ethical behavior.

Contributing to Success
The notion of an ethical organization may seem abstract, yet people who work in an organization with healthy ethics absolutely know it. They love their work, and they ultimately create better, more successful institutions.

William SeidmanWilliam Seidman is co-founder, chief executive officer, and president of Cerebyte Inc. He received a doctorate from Stanford University in 1987, where he did research in management decision-making.

Michael MccauleyMichael McCauley is vice president of Product Development for Cerebyte. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an MBA. Both have significant industry experience. Seidman started Cerebyte in 1997, using knowledge gathering capabilities and innovative technology to help businesses develop, implement, and sustain widespread performance improvement.

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