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March 18, 2014
All Ethical Systems Are Flawed
I readily agree with the current push for business ethics. Still, it’s important to recognize that not only are all ethical systems flawed, but some are deeply flawed. They are culturally bound. That’s a nice way of saying that what’s wrong in one culture is not necessarily wrong in another. For example, most in the English-speaking world view the Ten Commandments as an ethical guideline. So you’d think it was in stone. Not so. The Saints Augustine and Aquinas, for example, worked around the “commandment” against murder by formulating the Just War Doctrine — a means for justifying murder in some situations.
Recently I stumbled upon a unique set of ethical guidelines by George Cheney and Phillip Tomkins that are not based on general ethical doctrine, but more upon communication. Particularly the role of persuasion in business. What often frustrates me about most ethical doctrines is that they are focused solely upon the doer or the “sender” of messages. Stereotypical ethics often assumes that the receiver has no role in the decision process, a stance that makes no sense in our world. What I appreciate in these guidelines is that they recognize the responsibilities of both the sender and the receiver of messages.
1. Guardedness. Organizational members should use their own persuasive abilities to assess the messages from the organization. They should avoid automatically and unthinkingly accepting the conventional viewpoint. Beginning with an emphasis upon the receiver of messages sets the tone well. In this case, the authors assume that all corporate messages are political. I’d add that in business all messages — no matter who they come from — have a political component. That implies the use of the receiver’s assessment competencies.

2. Accessibility. Communicators should be open to the possibility of being persuaded or changed by the messages of others. If people are dogmatic, they are blind to useful information and different views. In other words, learn to appreciate push-back. Stone and Heen’s glorious new book on feedback (one form of push-back) has got it right: Accept push-back ”even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you’re not in the mood.” And...ask for it. And then make the changes that are necessary.

3. Nonviolence. Certainly coercion, overt or subtle, of others is ethically undesirable. Recent workplace violence should make everyone more sensitive to early signs of violent behavior toward others. Individuals should avoid using a persuasive stance that advocates one position as the one and only reasonable position, which often forces others to take more radical stances. Recent studies of speech authoritarianism and dominance have shown that today’s employees don’t want to be told what to do. When speakers try to establish dominance, they lose prestige, signaling to receivers that they lack confidence and authority. Instead, forms of what Alison Fragale calls ”powerless speech,” with markers such as disclaimers and tags are far more persuasive. Disclaimers such as “I know this is against the rules, but…” and tags such as “What do you think?” are far more powerful than sheer dogmatism.

4. Empathy. The empathic communicator genuinely listens to the arguments, opinions, values, and assumptions of others. The goal is to respect the right of all persons to hold diverse views. This is an especially important attribute since a 2010 University of Michigan study shows that college students today are 40% less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. The study’s authors speculate that the decline in empathy is related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and “hyper-competitiveness.” Although empathy can be a trap in which others take advantage of you, a boatload of studies regarding the empathic communicator have found that person to be unusually capable of influence and collaboration — key career attributes.
What’s unique about these guidelines is that they are skill based. They equate what are considered basic communication skills with ethical behavior. To a high degree they focus on equitable power sharing and decision making, the modus-operandi of most better managed companies in this knowledge-based world.

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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