December 2011

December 1st, 2011 by Gary Bates

Leadership? It's about behaviours.

'I would deny it. There is no racism, there is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one. But also the one who is affected by that - he should say that this is a game.' Sepp Blatter, FIFA President.
Sepp Blatter's recent crass remarks about racism in football got me thinking (and riled).  How often have you heard managers/leaders say 'do whatever it takes to get the result, just get the job done' even if that involves putting someone down, disparaging remarks, a bit of strong-arm management... And how often the words 'They should be able to take it', 'stop being so sensitive', 'It's all part of the game, if they can't take the heat...' or 'It's how things work round here. It's about the end result'.
Maybe I'm naïve. In the cauldron of big business where turning a profit is king, can behaving ethically really be a priority for businesses and business leaders? As long as the curve is upwards and shareholders are happy then does it really matter how people behave? And if someone says or does something inappropriate in the heat of the moment, as long as they apologise afterwards then it's ok, isn't it?

When leaders condone (or at best ignore) inappropriate behaviour, that sends a very clear message to everyone in an organisation - anything goes.  And it doesn't have to be as blatant as the racism that Blatter was excusing. Every day there are slights/negative micro messages towards people in workplaces all over the world. It may only be 'small stuff' - 'harmless' banter, jokes, snide comments - but the drip-drip nature of that kind of behaviour can be devastating for individuals often leading to serious exclusion, bullying and outright discrimination.

The impact on business productivity is immense -talented people leave, or become unproductive. At worst, they bring a case against the company requiring huge time, energy, resources and resulting in reputational damage in the eyes of customers, potential employees and investors.  And it doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to see the connect between these 'minor' behavioural misdemeanors and institutionalised amorality. The lack of a moral and ethical compass from leaders creates a culture where seriously unethical practices can flourish - it's no surprise that the bullying nature of the news room resulted in journalists believing that it was ok to phone hack, or that the total focus of leaders in some banks on profit, profit and more profit at whatever cost led to not only condoning, but rewarding massively irresponsible practices.

'I think the whole world is aware of the efforts we are making against racism and discrimination'  Sepp Blatter, FIFA President.

Of course all businesses now espouse their values - trust, integrity, respect, honesty, people first, customers first, etc, etc. But these words mean nothing if those at the top don't truly live and breathe them, and equally critical - if they don't make the effort to be aware of whether their employees are living and breathing them. To do this, leaders need to know their people, stay close, be visible - get out there. And if employees are behaving inappropriately and not living the values, it is the undeniable responsibility of leaders to challenge that and take action.

We've been doing a lot of work with senior executives and leaders recently on how they can address their own (and others') behaviours in order to create productive, inclusive working environments. Trust is king. People need to trust their manager, their leaders, their colleagues, their government, their banks, their press. A sea change is coming. with the advent of social media and instant global communication leaders can no longer hide or claim ignorance (if you don't know what's going on in your organisation then what kind of leader are you?).

Ethical leadership will win the day in the 21st century, ethical leaders and ethical companies will thrive. It's what people want. Or am I being naïve?


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