The coronavirus pandemic may be exposing a crisis of ethics in corporate America. Amazon, the second-largest private employer in the U.S., quickly came under fire from dozens of former and current employees over accusations that it failed to ensure warehouse worker safety during the pandemic — and that it purportedly fired whistleblowers. More recently, employees at Epic Systems in Wisconsin expressed concern over the lack of transparency from leaders about returning to the office.
Of course, every corporation, large or small, has likely had to deal with internal dissent at some point. But the current health crisis is exacerbating the ethical gap between employees and employers like never before. Companies are making decisions based on what they perceive to be the right course of action, and employees are questioning their reasoning. This disconnection reveals the need for clear and strong ethical foundations.
Understanding ethics isn’t innate. It takes time for us to learn that honesty leads to better social outcomes than misleading or lying. Establishing a shared framework of morals allows us to manage intense, complex social lives by giving us a default way of orienting ourselves in the world.
Navigating the landscape of business ethics is challenging. For example, when revenue is tight because of stagnant demand, is it ethical to make a choice that could risk the livelihoods of all employees? Is it ethical to fire a handful of people instead of cutting everyone’s salaries? Nearly every company claims to abide by some sort of ethical standard, but in today’s climate, more and more organizations must publicly demonstrate their values in order to survive.
How to Heighten Your Strategic Intuition During Crises
In business, uncertainty breeds fear. Leaders without a rock-solid ethical foundation may let fear guide them during unpredictable times, but that produces a scarcity mindset that yields shortsighted decision-making. Before blaming employees for poor decisions, look at your systems and processes. You may need to adjust your policies, strategies, and social norms in order to foster a company culture built on ethics, not fear. Here are three tactics to help reinforce your company’s ethical foundation:
1. Strategic agility. Strategic agility is like a map: The turn-by-turn directions are flexible, but the destination is clear. It requires adaptability and the cultivation of strategic intuition on all levels of the organization. It’s crucial to leading through disruption, and 9 out of 10 executives believe it’s critical to success and growth over time. Be clear about what you stand for, focus on where you’re going, and remain flexible about how to get there.
2. Strategic sensitivity. As a leader, you turn potential into actuality. You need courage and vulnerability to seize new opportunities while adhering to standards such as honesty and transparency. However, people are prone to counterproductive behaviors that predictively derail success. Overconfidence, mental neglect, overexertion, and other individual traits can devolve into fear when left unchecked. To avoid failure, you must minimize your “derailers” and understand your connection to the outcome.
3. Collective intelligence. The best leaders model their own ethical standards and simultaneously promote these standards in the group. Consider reinforcing the behavior you desire with rewards in front of others. It’s more likely that the organization will shift when you work with, not against, your social nature. Plus, a socially perceptive team will outperform any other team(even those with higher IQs and more training).
Periods of uncertainty and fear are tests for companies. Leaders operating under an established framework of ethics can make difficult decisions more quickly and can better handle the consequences of those decisions.