Setting a Personal Example – why it often fails, and how to fix it

  • 8 December 2016

While there’s certainly more to ethical leadership than ‘setting a personal example’, it’s still an important component. After all, why should someone do what you’re asking of them, if you’re not prepared to do the same yourself. The problem however is that all too often, little thought is put into what your own personal example is actually made up of, and how you could then use that knowledge to real effect. And as a result, most setting of a personal example fails.

And the extent to which setting a personal example so often under-delivers is confirmed in research from 2013 by the Chartered Management Institute showing that “80% of UK workers did not think that their manager sets a good moral example.” Alongside that is research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showing that “only 37% of employees trusted their organisation’s senior management.”

Do such findings reflect the position in insurance? Yes, I think they do, given the findings of a 2008 ethics survey by the Chartered Insurance Institute, which found that middle managers were looking to senior executives for setting and delivering the ethical tone for their firm, but were finding a material shortfall in actual performance.

So why is this the case? Clearly, a great many of those senior executives who want to set a personal example on ethical leadership are clearly not getting their message across. This could be down to it being  weak or unstructured in the first place, or being drowned out in the noise of other decisions. It’s equally likely that it’s not being sustained long enough to be picked up as something significant, or else being irrelevant in relation to the ethical challenges that those middle managers are actually facing.

What needs to change then? One approach is to show people what values based leadership looks like, but the problem there is that it becomes just another external layer of performance expectation, likely to get lost in the noise of other obligations. A quite different approach is to help people to use their own personal experiences, of both showing leadership and ‘doing the right thing’, to build their own performance narrative, upon which they can then draw to both recognise and react to important ethical decisions. And an interesting piece of research into this approach was published in 2013 by Catherine Marsh in the Journal of Business Ethics. Her research found that experiences with difference, experiences with life defining events, and experiences with supportive communities have a huge influence on someone’s development as an ethical leader in business.

Now, you may think of such experiences as being exceptional, but in fact, we have all had them in some shape or form in either childhood or adulthood. These are experiences have influenced us in important ways. And their connection with business? In simple terms, they emphasise that the values and influences that have made them good people in life overall, are just as applicable to the decisions they have to make at work. They help people bridge the oft-cited gap between how good people are outside of work and how good they are in work. They create a personal narrative that helps people show leadership on ethics at the times when it can be most critical and visible. And that is when change happens, when change is noticed, where the ethical signal starts to stand out amid all that business noise.

So what might a firm draw upon to develop their senior executives in this way? In her article, Marsh points to developing the aptitude to think critically, to enhancing the ability to connect with others, and to experiential approaches to learning connected with real and pertinent business environments. And how does someone deliver all that, you may well ask. Well, there are some very practical techniques that have been developed to build such skills. To find out more, keep in touch with the Ethics and Insurance blog, for I’ll be introducing some advanced courses on ethical decision making and ethical leadership during 2017.