Members of middle management are notorious for underestimating the huge impact they have on the ethical culture around them. When training managers and supervisors on ethics, we focus on topics like the following:
You are the “MVP” in setting the ethical tone of your department. CEOs and the “tone from the top” are of course tremendously important in creating an ethical environment. However, as research repeatedly demonstrates, employees primarily judge their workplace as ethical – or not – based on what they think about their boss.
The little things that you do have far more impact than you recognize. Managers and supervisors often fail to recognize just how impactful are the “little things” that they say or do. In classroom settings, it can be helpful to ask them to think of a former boss who was particularly influential. Almost everyone remembers a former boss who said or did something that on its face seemed insignificant but that stuck with them for years, if not decades. A few words by the boss showing respect or a caring attitude, or a wordless act demonstrating integrity in the face of challenge, impact employees far more and for far longer than their boss would ever imagine. The contrary is true, too. When it comes to the words and actions of leaders, there are no little things. As Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; she can never tell where her influence stops.” This applies equally to managers and supervisors.
When communications are good, good things happen. When communications are bad, bad things happen. The Company can handle any problem except the one that is swept under the rug — that is, the problem that people are afraid to talk about. If communications are open, issues get resolved. If communications are not open, it is inevitable that problems will get worse and that wrongdoing will thrive, even to the point of threatening the company. Every corporate scandal was preceded by a period in which communications became progressively more chilled.
In 2001, the nuclear submarine USS Greenville surfaced directly underneath a Japanese fishing boat, sinking it and killing nine people. The subsequent inquiry revealed that, before the collision, several crewmembers knew that the submarine was dangerously close to the fishing boat, but they said nothing. They said nothing because the captain – who was entertaining VIP passengers — had made it clear that he did not want to be disturbed by the crew. Leaders who intentionally or unintentionally chill communications, or who send signals that they do not want bad news, are asking for disaster.
How do you create an environment where employees speak up? Make them feel heard. A number of years ago a man named Harry took over as his city’s Director of the Department of Solid Waste. The department was in awful shape when he came in – abysmal productivity, horrible morale, constant turnover, etc. — but it did not take long before he turned things around on almost every metric.
“How’d you do it, Harry? What’s your secret?” he was asked.
Harry paused before giving his answer: “Well, I have to say that my secret is . . . coffee.”
“Coffee? Why coffee? To give you a little more energy? To help you work longer?”
“Oh no,” Harry laughed. “I say ‘coffee’ because every morning, at 4:15, I visit a different service center and have coffee with a different group of drivers.”
“Wow, that’s fantastic,” came the response. “Every morning, 4:15. What do you talk to them about? Pep talk? Weekly goals? Safety? What’s on your agenda?”
“Oh gosh, I don’t have an agenda,” Harry said, again gently laughing. “I don’t go there to talk,” he added. “I go there to listen. I want to hear their concerns, the obstacles they run into, their suggestions. I want to listen to what they have to say.”
Harry’s practice not only allowed him to learn more data enabling him to do a better job as a leader but, perhaps more importantly, his practice made his drivers feel valued and heard. Employees who feel valued and heard by their boss are far less likely to commit wrongdoing and are far more likely to speak up when they witness wrongdoing.
It can be helpful to reinforce to middle management that, yes, we have a million things we have to get done today. We have to finish the spreadsheet. We have three dozen calls to return. The report must be done by 5:00. And it always seems that employees “need to talk” at the worst possible time, right when we’re under a crunch. Especially the employees who chronically have issues. When we are interrupted, though, it can be helpful to remember the college professor who said,
I used to become frustrated when students would come into my office and interrupt my work. Until the day I realized that my students are my work.
When it comes to ethics training for middle management, much of it revolves around recognition: recognizing how much influence they have; recognizing how much the little things count; recognizing the overarching importance of communications; and recognizing how important it is to make employees feel heard. When middle management recognizes these things, ethical flourishing is almost inevitable.
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