Benchmark Ethics: First Get the Mission Straight

What is the first step required in creating an ethical organization? Contrary to our instinct or habit, the first step is not to create and circulate an ethics code or statement, nor to hire an ethics officer, nor to schedule employee ethics training.

None of the preceding steps will have much (if any) power to leverage or guide behavior unless they are intimately linked to a compelling overall organizational mission.
Think about an athletic team: only when a team is truly gripped by an intense, common desire to win a championship will they sacrifice and suffer through extra workouts, and subordinate their individual egos to team interests.

Negative feedback will have some impact of course. Threats of punishment, insults, and shaming can motivate some behavior in sports or business. But positive, shared vision is much more powerful over time (in raising children, coaching athletes, building nations, or leading organizations). Such negativity, by the way, provides the weak foundation of most sexual harassment employee training.

Individual missional identity also leverages individual behavior of course. A passionate individual Muslim, or Christian, or feminist or libertarian (to give but four examples) will usually live out the ethical values embedded in their identity even when surrounded by others who are different. But individualistic ethics is not enough for high performance team needs and challenges.

So this takes us back to our common mission. All moral/ethical values and guidelines derive their persuasive power from the larger mission or purpose they serve. This point is fundamental in the classical philosophy of Aristotle who said “the good is that at which everything aims.” It is also fundamental in the Judeo-Christian tradition which says that the first commandment is always “You shall have no other gods before me.” Another way to put it is to say that our (ethical) “goods” depend on our (missional) “gods.” In the Ten Commandments all that stuff about killing, stealing, truth-telling and so on is a direct implication of who the god is in the first commandment. And for Aristotle, ethical virtue is very specifically the stuff that helps us achieve that “good at which we aim.”

First get the mission straight. It must be clear, articulate, compelling, and shared. Then organizational ethics rules or principles can be successfully taught as guidelines that help us achieve our ultimate goals and purposes. Any other way of creating or teaching organizational ethics is doomed to fail.

Of course, the mission must be compelling and shared. Are there any limits here? Some business analysts argue that what the mission is doesn’t matter as long as it is firmly and broadly embraced. As long as it is “more than profits,” they often add. Your company mission could be to hook the next generation of Chinese youth on cigarettes or bioengineer a race of eight feet tall basketball stars or harvest the Amazon forest by 2025 or take over the earth in the name of the Nazi party … it doesn’t matter as long as it inspires the allegiance of your organization.

I don’t agree. I would argue that eventually there will be an exposure of such evil, self-serving designs and a rebellion will undo them. Over the longer haul, a viable, inspiring mission must tap into one (or both) of two broad themes. First, the mission could connect with human creativity in some way. That is, the organization could help people learn, or build, or explore, or have fun.

Second, the mission could connect with human healing and liberation in some way. That is, the organization could commit people to overcoming disease or hunger or ignorance or oppression in some form. To put it just a little glibly, a viable, inspiring mission either helps people “fulfil their dreams” or it helps people “overcome their nightmares.”

Think about Hewlett-Packard or Disney or Southwest Airlines or Boeing or Merck or Johnson and Johnson or AES or other great companies. No company is perfect and no company history is without blemish, but I would argue that such great companies have been driven by missions that tap into one or both of the creativity and liberation master themes of human existence.

First get the mission straight — clear and inspiring. The ethics statements, training programs, ethics officers, and other structures and processes follow from that crucial starting point.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.