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Essay: Positive Ethics

The subject of ethics is usually approached from a negative, pessimistic, and defensive stance.

It’s well known that any issue approached from this position triggers our nervous system to operate from the fight or flight instinct. The job for the fight or flight instinct is to constrict one’s scope of thinking and shut down any sense of optimism, hope, problem solving, or creativity. Instead, we hunker down as survival becomes the most important priority and, in the case of business ethics, worry about complaints, liabilities, and obligations. If one begins with a purely protective posture, adversarial feelings are sure to follow.

Once you’ve entered into the “battle stations” mode of survival, your brain is naturally wired to be self-centered. At that point, if you’re not running the other way in the search for safer pastures, you’ll most likely be drawing up demands and procedures motivated by the survival instinct to protect, through kill or be killed.

This form of ethics has it’s origins in viewing people from a disease perspective. The disease model magnifies what’s “wrong” with people. From this model, ethics are taught and implemented as a way of attempting to prevent people from taking advantage of each other and spreading the disease. Here’s some surprising news: This system isn’t working!

Fortunately there’s a better way.

After three years of being a reader (and an occasional writer), I can assure you that the Ethix is not primarily interested in eliciting fight-or-flight responses in its audience, or telling stories from the disease model. Refreshingly, Ethix usually focuses on what’s good in people and organizations, by presenting stories in business that bring out the best in people. This is truly what ethics was meant to be.

Why is it good to have a positive ethic? Are there benefits beyond just feeling good? And, are there benefits to those who practice a values-based and virtuous business life as an alternative to a life focused on the acquisition of power, prestige, and profit? It turns out, that the answer from a rigorous scientific perspective is a resounding yes!

Barbara Fredrickson, professor at University of Michigan and winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology prize, has made an exciting discovery. While negative emotion constricts our thinking and drives us into a state of survival responses, Fredrickson has found that positive emotion expands our scope of awareness, increases creativity, enhances performance and builds intellectual, physical, and social benefits we can draw upon later. In addition, feeling “good” and “happy” improves one’s immune system and leads to better performance.

Feeling good long term happens most consistently when people feel completely engaged in using their strengths toward something greater than themselves that has meaning for the individual. This is a win-win for the employee and organization.

There are proven (research driven) rules to make this happen. Here are just a few:

  1. Using one’s natural strengths while engaged in tasks.
  2. Clear goals.
  3. A sense of control.
  4. Contributing to something with meaning beyond oneself.

The last decade of rigorous science around “optimal human functioning” has shown that positive emotion leads to a plethora of incredible benefits: better health and longevity, the setting of higher goals, better performance, increased creativity, better evaluations from supervisors, and higher pay. The opposite has been found with negative and fearful emotions.

This growing body of “Positive Psychology” research is demonstrating that people respond much more favorably to a positive expectation that they will demonstrate character strengths and virtue (and being held accountable to that expectation), than when they’re treated as primarily flawed and in need of constant supervision and constraints. Of course, none of this works if carried out manipulatively. Leadership must actually believe it. To believe it, you must be presented with positive stories of human potential in an atmosphere of virtue and action-based values.

For positive ethics to take over, we’re in desperate need for stories of nobility and character. Facing questions of ethics though the lens of positive human potential will itself induce positive emotions and expanded awareness that leads to greater performance.

So, while reading this issue of Ethix, remember it’s more than an exercise in expanding your knowledge. It’s a method of opening your mind to what’s good and right in the human spirit. And, in making you feel good, it is expanding the possibilities.

David Mashburn earned his doctorate in clinical psychology in 1986. He is in private practice in Bellevue, Washington. He is also a partner in a Seattle-based company, Tidemark, a provider of workforce staffing solutions. He writes and speaks on the science of human flourishing. See his blog at workpuzzle.com.By David Mashburn
David earned his doctorate in clinical psychology in 1986. He is in private practice in Bellevue, Washington. He is also a partner in a Seattle-based company, Tidemark, a provider of workforce staffing solutions. He writes and speaks on the science of human flourishing. See his blog at workpuzzle.com.

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