Ethics, incompetence, and conspiracy

The common thread between these items is the importance of communication. And it is the communication by leaders and managers within organisations that signifies to people what standards of thinking and behaviour are acceptable.

This communication takes the form of spoken words, behaviours, gestures and also of absence, silence and looking away. Thus leaders communicate the way that it is acceptable to be within that organisation.

Ethics are hard to define – often they are easier to detect by their absence rather than by their manifestation in the daily life of an organisation.

When I used to work in government we talked about ethical behaviour as doing the right thing even when nobody was watching.

Interestingly, in that government context we discussed (and sometimes vigorously debated) things like probity quite a lot. Perhaps one of the features of an ethical organisation is that an ongoing discourse exists about what ethics means at a practical level for people within that organisation?

Another thing that supports an ethical organisation is a refutation of incompetence. Where incompetence is tolerated, accepted or covered up within an organisation it can override ethical considerations and breed bad outcomes.

At best, toleration of incompetence can lead to dispirited staff and unhappy customers. At worst incompetence can segue into breaches of statutory and regulatory requirements unless leaders and managers take vigorous steps to prevent it.

Incompetence tolerated also breeds passivity. If incompetence is accepted, and people are unable to stop it, then they cease to care. That giving up caring about quality means that the organisation is starting down a slippery slope that can lead to poor delivery initially and, ultimately, to ethical issues.

It is a pretty safe bet that an organisation that tolerates incompetence is not simultaneously facilitating discussions about ethical behaviour or probity. It is not likely to be focused on high quality outcomes for stakeholders such as shareholders, customers or staff.

The next step beyond this is conspiracy. This situation is neatly outlined by Michael Krigsman in his recent article, Dell lawsuit: Pattern of deceit.

As Michael summarised it:

Dell shipped approximately 12 million computers containing faulty components and then tried to hide the problems from buyers.

For Dell this appears to have played out, with staff members actively conspiring to do the wrong thing by customers, as a failure of ethics.

This kind of situation makes me wonder just what communication (taking the form of spoken words, behaviours, gestures and also of absence, silence and looking away) that the Dell leaders and managers were demonstrating to their people?

I wonder too, how many other organisations suffer in similar ways? And, if you are a leader or manager, what signals are you sending to your people about acceptable ways of being in your organisation?