Leadership in Action – Are We Unintentionally Creating an Unethical Culture?

When we are leading others, we are shaping their behaviors with our expectations. While we may be conscious of many of our expectations, both explicit and implicit, there are many more expectations that we are completely unconscious of delivering. The one place, where the impact is often unconscious, is the lengths we are willing to go in order to “win” or achieve a goal.


When asked, most everyone would say they have integrity. Unfortunately, it is what we rationalize as acceptable behavior that determines if that is really true. Unfortunately, integrity is not a binary concept. People are not either unethical or full of integrity. Between those two spots is the willingness to take short cuts, skip steps and cheat to achieve the desired goals. In sports, what one team calls cheating, the “cheating team” rationalizes as, “Everyone is doing it, it is part of the game. We just figured out how to do it more effectively.”


This win-at-all-costs idea creates a culture where “the end justifies the means.”  When we look at that statement, we are recognizing that the means is questionable, but the win or the goal is too important to worry about it. This is what happens in organizations where they are found guilty of unethical and illegal business practices. The CEO replies to the inquiry that they had no idea that the behavior was happening. The reality is the threat of missing the goal was so strong, that employees would try anything to meet the expectation. When a single employee behaves in an unethical way, the normally unacceptable behavior is not corrected, but rewarded. This sets a pattern. More and more employees use that same behavior to achieve the results, and the behavior becomes part of the culture.


As leaders, most of us would not fall into “the end justifies the means” rationalization. However, many do express “do whatever it takes… just get the job done.”  While this is clearly not the same expectation, it does potentially have us on a similar slippery slope. As leaders, we need to understand that without effective guardrails (organizational values) to provide context to “whatever” means, this results in unintended consequences. We need to be more explicit and not leave room for rationalizing the behavior.  Instead of a blanket statement of “do whatever it takes,” engage in the conversation about “what will it take to achieve that goal on time?” In that conversation, you are able to shape the actions to what is really acceptable, within the values of the organization. While the conversation might bring up questionable behavior, as a leader you can say, “While that is outside of our values, what can we take from that concept that will actually be inside the values?”


When we are Nurturing Growth in our teams, we need to be both a strong role model of acceptable behavior as well as guide the conversation to include the organizational values as the guardrails. It is within this framework we clarify what is within acceptable behavior when focused on achieving our goals.