9 ways to set a better personal example on ethics

  • 27 April 2018

How you handle the responsibilities you have marks out as the type of leader you will become. And having high ethical standards is crucial, for business leaders rank it as their number 1 competency.

There are five components to showing leadership on ethics, one of which is setting a personal example. There’s no point setting an ethical vision for the firm if you yourself are not prepared to lead on it by example. If you don’t, then others will take your cue and not bother either. Cue end of ethical vision.

Now you may think that setting a personal example involves little more than being the good person you know you are. Unfortunately, much more is needed. Take this finding from research in 2013. 80% of UK workers didn’t think that their manager set a ‘good moral standard’.

What this tells us is that executives and managers are either not setting a personal example, or as is more likely, they’re not setting a personal example that is strong enough, clear enough or consistent enough to be picked up by the people who work with them.

I’m going to set out the steps that everyone can take in order to deliver, in ethical terms, a better personal example. And I’ve organised them under those three headings of ‘strong enough, clear enough and consistent enough’.

To deliver a stronger personal example
  • Only ask others to do what you would be prepared to do yourself, and prepared to be seen to do so yourself.
  • Position your personal example within the context of the business. Two elements of that context would be the firm’s strategy and its values. This means that following your example is more about what the company needs, and less about what you personal need.
  • Be honest with people about the challenges being faced. Don’t just point to the positive stuff. Being honest and open about the ethical challenges your firm is facing is one reason why followers stick with leaders.
To deliver a clearer personal example
  • Know how to speak the language of ethics, otherwise you risk having the right intention but delivering it in an unclear or muddled way.  
  • Talk with people about the personal example you’re setting, in terms of personal events in your life that shaped how you think about ethics. Yes, that personal example should be positioned within the context of the business, but use stories from your own career to explain why setting a personal example on ethics is important to you.
  • Shift the tone and focus of your personal example from time to time. So for example, every so often, demonstrate it in specific terms that are relevant to a key audience. Don’t just drum out the same message.
To deliver a more consistent personal example
  • If you’ve signed off rules for your firm, make sure you follow them yourself. This should be particularly the case with business gifts and hospitality. The more senior you are, the more you’re likely to be offered them and the more your personal example will be in the spotlight.
  • Set aside some time to revisit your personal example from time to time. And identify opportunities to retune it and keep it relevant to evolving circumstances;
  • Don’t ever use rationalisation such as ‘no one will be worse off’ and ‘everyone else is doing it’. And if you hear them yourself, openly challenge them.

To learn about leadership on ethics, check out the free guide: ' Your Road Map to Leadership on Ethics' (see 'Guides' in top menu)

About the Author Duncan Minty

Duncan is the founder of the Ethics and Insurance blog and the author of its many posts. He's a Chartered Insurance Practitioner, having worked 18 years in the UK market. As an adviser to many firms on ethics issues, as well as a regular conference speaker, he is one of the leading voices on ethics and insurance.

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