Successful Supervisor 38 Maintaining the Ethical Edge

August 6, 2017

I spend a great deal of my time working to help organizations understand the benefits of running an ethical culture. Believe it or not, there are many highly placed leaders who believe that making ethical decisions means lowering the organization’s performance numbers.

The truth has been revealed in numerous books and articles that organizations that make the ethical choices, even though they may be difficult or costly in the short term, outperform unethical organizations by a factor of at least 1.5, often 2, or even more.

Producing an annotated bibliography is not the purpose of this article; if you want to read up on the topic, look up “Business Ethics” on Wikipedia. There are over 200 references listed.

As a “CliffsNotes” approach for this blog, I will refer you to the work of Raj Sisodia from his book “Firms of Endearment,” which is one data point among dozens that all point to the same conclusion: organizations that do the right thing, even though it is difficult at times, end up thriving.

I serve on the Board of Directors of the Rochester Business Ethics Foundation (RABEF), where we seek to celebrate local organizations that are running their businesses with high ethics and are benefitting from that practice. Rather than gripe about corner-cutting operations that sacrifice the long term health for short term gains, RABEF seeks to champion those organizations that are doing business the right way and gaining huge sustainable benefits, including higher trust for all stakeholders.

You may ask what has this to do with being a supervisor? Well, it has a lot to do with it. I will grant that the ethical tone of an organization starts at levels far above the supervisor, but dealing with ethical dilemmas occurs at all levels, and supervisors are not exempt from the pressures that sometimes lead to ill-advised decisions.

If you are a supervisor, I guarantee that you have to make many ethical decisions every day. You may not recognize them as such, but you are routinely confronted with the opportunity to make choices that support or undermine the ethical standards that are espoused by your organization.

The first, and most important, consideration is how you can tell if you are facing an ethical dilemma. Nobody is going to sneak up behind you, tap you on the shoulder, and whisper into your ear, “Pay attention Bub, this is an ethical choice you are making here.”

The answer is disarmingly simple: you are facing an ethical dilemma if it is unclear to you what the “right” decision is. There are positive and negative consequences for every course of action you might take. Think of it this way: if the “right” thing to do is evident, then you have no problem making an ethical decision.

Once you are aware that you have an ethical decision on your hands, you have arrived at the moment of truth. You can rationalize the situation and make the “easy” or “most popular” decision regardless of the ethical considerations and be done with it.

That action leads to a kind of dry rot within the group where you may actually be putting the larger organization on a slippery slope in terms of lost trust. Small unethical decisions often lead to larger ones, and at different levels, so the reasons why get obscured in the thinking process, and standards get lowered across the board.

Here are some suggested approaches that can protect you from making unethical decisions.

1. Clarify your values and make sure people know what they are

Values written on a chart on the wall are useless unless you follow them, even when it is difficult to do. By compromising on a core value when it makes you swallow hard to follow it, you show that the entire list is a sham, so not only do the values lack power, they actually reveal an hypocrisy that tells people we follow our values only when it is convenient to do so.

2. Consider the context and all stakeholders

Before wrestling with what the “right” approach is, you need to get the facts. Difficult ethical choices are contextual. For example, we would all agree that taking someone else’s property is an ethical violation, but if you find an interesting book someone left in a recycle bin, it would not be a violation to take it. Consider all of the stakeholders when gathering the facts around an issue.

3. Don’t deal with the decision in a vacuum

If you go through the logical calculation alone, you can often talk yourself into the expedient or less than ethical way out. That process ultimately leads to the need to explain your actions to others who can take pot shots at your judgment.

Once you recognize the “right” thing to do is hard to identify, get some help from others who might be able to add different perspectives to the discussion. This approach has the additional advantage of gaining buy-in of the decisions from others.

4. Look at the issue through different lenses

In ethics classes, we teach a whole array of methods to analyze ethical dilemmas. I will briefly outline just four of the more popular methods here, and you can look up about a dozen other ways in any ethics text.

o Utilitarian – Do the greatest good for the greatest number – Consider the whole population and do that which provides the highest value for most of the people.

o Limited Egoism – Attempt to help others and do not violate their rights – This method comes from your attitude in making a decision. You attempt to assist other people and do so with a sense of fairness.

o Kantian – All correct behavior must be reversible or reciprocal, i.e. follow the Golden Rule. If I take an action that impacts another person, would I be willing to have that action taken on me if the roles were reversed?

o Consistency – is a form of moral reasoning that employs counter examples. Explore some analysis of what would happen if conditions were different. For example, you might ask “would I make this decision if I was starving”?

Your decision could go one way when looking at the problem from a Kantian perspective but a different way if you focus on Utilitarianism. Having more than one perspective adds work and potentially confusion, but it does help with the depth of your analysis.

5. Make a concrete decision based on the logic you are using

Often supervisors will equivocate and postpone making a decision because of the difficulty. This is a trap. Kicking the can down the road to next month or delegating the decision upward because you cannot make a call are ways of procrastinating, but they lack commitment.

Make your decision once you have thought the problem through and consulted with others who might have alternate views.

6. Communicate your decision widely

Don’t just tell people what your decision was, but lead them through the logic you went through to make the call. It is usually good to go all the way back to one of your values, and then describe how your decision was based on adherence to that value.

You can share that other decisions were possible, but you feel, based on your analysis, that the one you made is the best long term course of action.

Leaders are faced with ethical dilemmas on a routine basis. It is how you react and deal with these decisions that will govern how well you do personally and how much trust your organization generates with all stakeholders. That increased trust is the basis for the productivity and profitability advantage of running an ethical organization.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Riddle About Perception

April 2, 2016

In one of my Transformational Leadership classes, an executive once told me, “I am the kind of person who does what he thinks is right.” I did a bit of a double take and swallowed hard to keep from insulting him by laughing out loud.

Later, when I had a chance to think about that statement, I tried to conjure up a situation where a person intentionally did what he or she thought was wrong at the time. It is hard to imagine.

I suppose if you are mentally ill, it might be possible to actually do what you believe is wrong, but I am not convinced of it. Reason: Whatever action you take at a particular time, you have rationalized it to be the best thing to do at that moment, otherwise you would do something else.

That is not to say that the rest of the world would agree with your logic, but at least you have that opinion at the instant you are taking action. Let’s take some extreme examples and pick them apart to see how the mind plays tricks on us.

We would all agree that what Bernie Madoff did in bilking thousands of investors out of billions of dollars was not the right thing to do. I am sure if you interviewed him in his cell today he would agree.

But, if you were to get inside his head while he was performing these illegal and deceptive transactions, I’ll bet he believed he was actually helping people (at least at the start). Once the Ponzi Scheme started to crumble, he was still doing what he thought was best, which was trying to protect his interests.

If he thought the best thing to do was to turn himself in, he would have done that. Let me be clear, he would have been aware he was breaking the law and hurting people in the end, but his actions at any moment were still “best” according to his twisted logic.

There is a whole class of people who have the objective to be disruptive to others even at the risk of their own longevity, but they have been brainwashed into believing the wrong acts are actually earning them a special place in another life.

How about Hitler. Surely he must have known that vaporizing millions of people in ethnic cleansing was wrong. Some history books indicate that was not the case. They point out that he was acting with the conviction that he was helping build a great society that would last forever.

My question is this. Do you think it is physically possible to do something that you believe at that instant is not the best thing to do, or is the existential act of performing a deed the definition of what a person feels is best at that instant, all things considered?

Note, I am not saying we believe it is the morally correct thing to do, just the best option available at the moment. In other words, even if we know it to be morally or ethically wrong, we have rationalized the circumstances so we believe it is the best thing we can do now.

This conundrum does not keep me awake at night, but I have puzzled over it many times. So, what is the remedy?  Get yourself a trusted friend and bounce ideas off that person, especially for the edgy decisions. At least you will have more than one brain working on the conundrum.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at 585-392-7763. Website BLOG He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.

Changing Attitudes

July 4, 2011

We have all heard the sayings about attitude. From the pulpit to the boardroom, and even to the barroom, you can hear things like:

• What governs your happiness in life is not what happens to you, but how you react to what happens to you.
• You must approach people with an attitude of gratitude.
• The most important word that governs your success in life is attitude.
• To change your life for the better, change your attitude about life.
• A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.
• Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine.
• If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.

After a while these platitudes lose their meaning due to oversaturation. For this article, I wanted to dig beyond the catchy phrases and get back to what attitude really is and how we all can do a better job of controlling our own and coaching others to improve theirs.

When circumstances or other forces prevent us from experiencing life in a way that makes the most sense to us, we often turn sour and develop what is known as a bad attitude. This becomes manifest in numerous familiar ways from pouting, to doubting, to shouting, and even to clouting.

Is there a universal secret that can help people keep a more positive attitude most of the time? Let me share two extremes. I know a woman who wears a pin with ruby slippers on it. She is like a ray of sunshine who is on a constant crusade to spread as much cheer as she can with everyone. Does she ever have a bad day? I’ll bet she does, but I have never seen her really down. She lives in a very nice world, even when some people are not very nice to her.

I ran into another woman in a hair salon this past week. I went into a strange place because I had some time to kill. The woman spoke in a constant stream of babble. She literally could not stop talking at all. Every phrase she uttered was negative. For her, the world is the pits, and she is forced to endure a steady stream of evil. I marvel over these two extremes. Ask yourself seriously, where on the scale between these two extremes do you reside most of the time.

I need to make a distinction here between the majority of people who have some control over their thoughts and the few people who have deep psychological problems based on disease or prior traumas. There are people who feel they must lash back at the world because of what they have been forced to endure. Perhaps it was some kind of physical or mental abuse when they were a child. Perhaps there was a total betrayal by a trusted loved one. For these people, trying to alter their mental state by thinking positive thoughts might further repress some gremlins that need to come out with professional help. For the majority of folks, even though we have some issues to resolve, learning to have a more positive attitude could be a major step forward in terms of leading a happier life.

The greatest power God gave us is the power to choose. I learned that from Lou Holtz 25 years ago in a video entitled “Do Right.” What Lou meant is that the choice is ours where we exist on the scale of attitude. So, how come many people choose to dwell on the negative side of life? Is it because they enjoy being miserable? I think not. I believe if a person realizes there is a more enjoyable place to dwell, he or she will do the inner work necessary to gravitate toward it. The reason many people live in misery is because they simply do not know or fail to remember that they have the power to change their condition. It is there all the time, if they will only recognize and use the power. In the song “Already Gone” by The Eagles, is a profound lyric, “So often times it happens, we all live our life in chains, and we never even know we have the key.”

What trick of the mind can we use to remember the power we have over our thoughts? It is simple. We need to deal with root issues and then train our brain to think in a different pattern. It has been proven that habitual thought patterns can be changed simply by replacing bad thoughts with good ones consistently for about a month. That is long enough to reprogram our brain to overcome a lifetime of negative attitudes and thoughts. There is a simple process that is guaranteed to work if we will only use it consistently.

Step 1 – Catch yourself having a negative thought.

This is the part where most people fail. They simply do not recognize they are having negative thoughts, so no correction is possible. Through the power of this article, you now have the gift (if you chose to use it) of catching the negative thought next time you have one. Use that power!

Step 2 – Replace the negative thought with a positive one.

Mechanically reject the negative thought and figure out a way to turn it to an advantage. Napoleon Hill had a great technique for doing this. He posited that every bad situation contained the seed of an equivalent benefit. When something negative happened, rather than lamenting, he would fix his energy on finding the seed of the equivalent benefit. With practice, it is possible to do this nearly all of the time.

Step 3 – You must praise yourself for rejecting the bad thought and replacing it with a good one.

Why? Because the road to changing a lifetime of negativity is long and hard. You need encouragement along the way to recognize that you are literally reinventing your entire self through the power of your mind. One might think this is impossible objectively, but you are accomplishing it. I read a joke that it is great to be a youth because you do not have the experience to know that it is physically impossible to do what you are doing. Every time you praise yourself for taking the initiative to change your attitude, you make the next life-changing attitude adjustment easier to make. Thus, you can begin to form a habit of changing the way you think. Presto, a month later the world will see a new and much more positive you.

The good news is that this three-step process takes no time out of your busy day. It costs absolutely nothing to do it, yet it can literally transform the only thing in life that really counts – the quality of your life.

The amazing thing about this technique is that it can be taught to others rather easily. The idea is so simple it can be understood in a five minute discussion, yet the benefits are so powerful it can make a huge difference in the life of the other person. I recommend you try this method of self-improvement for a month and experience the benefits. Once you do, then help some people who are miserable to improve their lot in life by applying this process.