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Ethics and business success: A perfect marriage

5 min read


There is no guarantee that doing the right thing will lead to personal success. In 30-plus years as an ethics consultant, I have seen ethics undo more than a few brilliant careers. But I have also seen leaders whose ethics helped them succeed.

You may think that rising to the top with your ethics intact is a matter of luck. But my observation is that ethical leaders follow a conscious strategy for incorporating ethics in their success. Here are a few steps that have helped others make ethics a part of their success.

Choose whom you work for. If your ethics and the ethics of your employer significantly disagree, your career success is likely to be limited. Organizations seldom promote individuals outside of their cultural boundaries, which include its ethics. You can’t expect perfect agreement between your ethics and the ethics of an employer. But a vegan who works for a meat-packing company is not likely to go far in the company. While most of us cannot change jobs at will, you increase your chances of success when you are employed by an organization with which you are in general ethical agreement.

A warning: Many employees who work for organizations with incompatible ethics hope that they can change the organization’s ethics to match their own. But changing the ethics of an organization is a big job even for its CEO. If you are looking for a reasonable prospect of success, don’t bet on changing the ethics of the organization.

Find ethical allies. Even if you are in general ethical agreement with your employer, you will have varying degrees of ethical agreement with individual employees. Make allies of those with whom you have a high level of ethical agreement. If possible, include them among the individuals with whom you work closely. The better you get to know your ethics cohorts, the better the chances that they will support your advancement. Your advancement is not at the expense of their ethics.

Trademark your ethics. If you want ethics to fuel your success, make ethics part of how you work. For example, if you are in a sales position, make your trademark providing customers with honest information. Make honesty a part of your sales edge. If you work on a technical team, make your trademark being generous in giving others credit for their accomplishments. Just as we have confidence in companies with a reputation for honesty, people will have confidence in you if ethics is your work trademark. Will others try to take advantage of your ethics? Certainly. But your ethical trademark will help you push them back over time as others see their conduct for what it is.

Avoid ethics traps. An ethics trap is a situation in which you are forced to choose between your ethics and an organizational goal. An example would be a bid situation in which the other bidders have inflated their experience, and your organization can make it to the next round by inflating its own experience.  It is lie or lose — or so it seems. There are many ways to avoid such traps. For example, you document your real experience in a way that the other bidders can’t match. You can also message in your bid that others may be inflating their experience, e.g., by providing references across your claimed experience. You have to find a way to “spring” the ethics trap. A low ethics manager goes along with “market conditions” while a high ethics leader seeks to change them.

Be strategic about ethics. It is rare that the ethics of an individual and the ethics of an organization agree completely. It is just as rare for the ethics of an individual and their co-workers to agree perfectly. Being ethical does not mean being unwilling to compromise when the inevitable disagreements occur. If you are too rigid about your ethics, you are sure to limit your ability to influence the organization when it really matters. Ethical leaders compromise on small issues to build the personal capital needed to influence the big issues. You may disagree with others in your organization about whether an ad is misleading. But if you are also concerned with a product-safety issue, save your ethical capital for that fight. It is worth compromising on the smaller issues in the interests of winning on the issues of significant ethical impact.

Making ethics part of your success does not mean that ethics will automatically guarantee your success.  Ethical leaders pursue their ethics agenda strategically. Ethics will contribute to your success if you use your knowledge of how organizations work to pursue your ethics. By following the steps outlined here, you increase your chances of ethical success.

Mark Pastin is an award-winning ethics thought leader, ethics consultant, and keynote speaker. He’s the CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting ethics in business and government. A Harvard-educated ethicist who’s received grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he’s published more than 100 articles and written a book, “Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action” (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

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