Michael Quinn, Dean of the College of Science and Engineering, Seattle University
Author of Ethics for the Information Age
When the topic of ethics arises, most of us think about the high-profile breakdowns we read about in the news. And we know that isn’t us. Still, being ethical or acting with integrity is important because not only do we want to be true to our own standards, we need to work in a way that leads others to trust and respect us. Michael Quinn, who has written about ethics and related topics, has agreed to offer us some guidance.
Q: Michael, what is ethical behavior and what is not?
A: There are many good answers to this question, but here’s my favorite: Ethical behavior is behavior consistent with the character of a virtuous person. A virtuous person is someone who possesses virtues: character traits human beings need in order to flourish and be truly happy.
Q: Well then, what are the character traits human beings need in order to flourish and be truly happy?
A: To some extent that depends on where you live and what era you live in, but I think there are some universally important character traits, such as honesty, justice, and loyalty. Often the roles you play also determine the character traits you need in order to flourish. For example, the best parents possess the virtues of patience and kindness (among others). The best employees are friendly and industrious. The great religious traditions contain a lot of wisdom about the character traits that do ¾ and don’t ¾ lead to human flourishing.
Q: What are the most common breaches in ethical behavior for people working in an organization?
A: I haven’t done a scientific study, but based on my personal observations, I think there are a lot of common breaches all falling under the heading of dishonesty: saying things that aren’t so. Here are a few examples:
- People sometimes exhibit dishonest behavior when they are trying to protect their reputation. They don’t want others to know they have made a mistake because they are afraid of the consequences, so they don’t take responsibility for what they have done: they fabricate a lie or try to deflect the blame onto someone else.
- A second example is people who feel frustrated by a lack of information and begin filling in the vacuum with their own speculations that reflect negatively on senior leadership.
- A third example is passive-aggressive behavior, such as employees failing to voice their true feelings in the presence of a supervisor, but then complaining and feeling resentful after the supervisor has left. On the flip side are supervisors who fail to be honest with their subordinates, such as a manager cynically going through the process of soliciting opinions about an upcoming decision when the input of the employees is not going to be thoughtfully considered.
- Sometimes one person’s moral lapse creates a climate that fosters breaches by others. For example, wrongdoing by more senior members of an organization may have a corrupting influence on more junior members of the organization, who follow their example and perpetuate the culture of misbehavior.
Q: If you were giving advice to a young person entering an organization, what would say with respect to ethics?
A: You might be surprised by what you see. Someday you will be tested. You are going to have to decide whether you are going to go along with unethical behavior or stand by your principles. If you do not go along, you are going to pay a price. At the very least, you can expect people to give you a hard time verbally. Co-workers may give you the cold shoulder. If you do go along, you are going to pay a higher price, because if you don’t have your integrity, what do you have? I’m not saying what happens to you will be as dramatic as what happened to Frank Serpico (check out the movie), but there is a price to be paid for not conforming to the institutional culture. As you advance in an organization and move into positions of greater power, expectations will increase that you embrace the organizational culture, with all of its flaws. You will also find that the ethical problems you face as a higher-level manager are a lot more subtle and nuanced than they were when you had less responsibility. It’s not that simple to do the right thing; the trade-offs between upholding principles, maximizing benefits, and maintaining fairness are complicated and require wisdom and good judgment. With this in mind, I would advise a young person entering an organization to remember that the decisions facing the senior leaders are seldom black and white, so it’s unfair to judge someone based simply on a particular decision they’ve made.
Q: A common complaint of employees centers on a lack of transparency in management decisions. What does transparency look like in practice?
A: Transparency doesn’t mean everybody knows everything, but it does mean people know what the rules are. There should be a general understanding within organizations about the processes to be followed when particular kinds of decisions are to be made. Who gets a voice? Whose approval is necessary? Who has the final say? Who is going to be in the room when the final decision is made? If the processes are open, then it should be obvious who should be involved in each decision and, therefore, where the information needs to flow. Another facet of transparency has to do with sharing the results of controversial decisions with stakeholders. If there is significant debate among stakeholders about the right direction to go, and management decides to move in a particular direction, then at appropriate intervals after the decision, management should take responsibility for the decision by providing the stakeholders with accurate information about the outcomes achieved.
Q: What else should our readers be aware of when thinking about ethical behavior for themselves?
A: Thinking about ethical behavior really boils down to two questions: What kind of person do I want to be? and What kind of world do I want to live in?
Here are a couple of examples that illustrate how you can use these questions:
- I’m traveling on business and collecting receipts so I can be reimbursed for my expenses. The taxi driver gives me a blank receipt; I can fill in any number I want. Should I put down the actual amount I paid, or should I bump it up $10? Who’s going to know? Well, I’m going to know. What kind of person do I want to be: A stand-up guy or someone who steals from his company?
- After the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 26 people dead, some suggested the solution to massacres in schools is to put armed guards in every school. Is that the right response to take? I think it comes down to how you answer the question: Is a world with armed guards in every school the kind of world I want to live in?
Q: Michael, let me ask you a couple of broad questions that might take us in an entirely different direction: First, talk to us about managing change and reaching alignment in an organization. Those seem to be difficult times for administrators and managers.
A: Organizations are pretty good at handling routine problems. There are structures and procedures in place, and a good manager can ensure the organization takes care of the problems as they emerge. However, when a novel problem arises, one that can’t be solved by existing structures and procedures, that’s when leadership gets difficult. When an organization must adapt in order to thrive in the new environment, the first response of most people is to feel that they are not being protected by their leader. The challenge of the leader is to learn how to manage the anxiety felt by the members of his or her team. People don’t resist change per se, but they do resist loss. The job of the leader is to understand the losses at stake for the people in the organization and find a way to move them through the losses to a new place where the organization can overcome the novel problem and thrive.
Q: Also, what questions should managers be asking of their teams?
A: Former New York City mayor Ed Koch was famous for saying, “How am I doing?” It’s not quite that simple for most leaders, and I’m not sure how much good feedback even Ed Koch got. You can’t just sit everybody on your team down and ask them, “How am I doing?” If you do that, the answers you receive will probably not provide the information you want. People just aren’t that candid and courageous, as a rule. But I do think that 360-degree performance reviews are valuable assessment strategies, and I recommend them. They enable team leaders to get anonymous feedback not just from their supervisor, but also from peers and their subordinates. I have found 360-degree reviews to be very helpful to my own development as a manager.
Thank you, Michael, for these insights. It seems that each individual needs to observe his or her own behavior with regard to ethics in the workplace. Within the context of my interests—quality conversation and impactful meetings—ethical behavior means conducting ourselves in a way that is not only honest, but also open and sincere. This is essential for building a reputation as both ethical and a good colleague and manager.
Michael Quinn is author of Ethics for the Information Age, which is now in its sixth edition. He currently serves as Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at Seattle University. Before coming to Seattle, he worked for two years as a software engineer at Tektronix and twenty-four years as a computer science professor at the University of New Hampshire and Oregon State University. He earned his Ph.D. in computer science from Washington State University.