It is increasingly difficult to ignore the ethical scandals that are continually being uncovered and presented in the media.
P

here seems to be no sector or country that is immune to ethical problems, from scandals in sports, banking, health, the automotive sector or even in the European Parliament. For those who are curious about these issues, I recommend a quick search on Google where you can find several lists with the top-25 or top-10 of sports, political or corporate scandals in our recent history.

But the question that occurs to me when I hear about the"next big scandal waiting to happen " is not "why do people continue to exhibit unethical behaviour?", nor "what can we do to stimulate ethical behaviour?". The answer to these questions can be found in numerous studies and literature reviews (such as those published by Michael Brown and Linda Trevi├▒o in Leadership Quarterly in 2006 or Deanne Den Hartog in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior in 2015) that show that ethical (or unethical) behaviors originate from a combination of individual factors, such as conscientiousness, need for power or Machiavellianism, and situational ones, including the culture and moral values of the organization.

Given the tendency for these behaviours to continue to appear, even in contexts that stress the importance of morality and of"doing things right while doing the right thing", the question I usually ask is "what can we do to minimise the impact of these behaviours, should they occur?" Put another way, since it seems impossible to eradicate these behaviours in their entirety, what mechanisms do organisations and managers have at their disposal to limit the scope and impact of potential ethical failures, particularly those coming from people in positions of greater responsibility?

One possible answer is to develop control mechanisms that replace the behaviour of these leaders and limit their ability to harm their teams. These substitutes can be created at the individual, job and organisational level. For example, by stimulating employees' organisational self-esteem managers are developing people who are more confident about their behaviour and motivated to maintain that positive image, thus not being so dependent on contextual clues and avoiding behaviours that put their self-image at risk. By giving greater meaning to the work done by their employees (i.e. my work is important and has an impact on the lives of others), they are also contributing to the fact that they try to act in a way that does not harm "the other", making them more immune to the influence of deviant behaviour. Finally, the positive reputation (and its dissemination in internal communication) of a company can also contribute to limiting the reach of unethical behaviour because the general tendency is to try to preserve this status that is so hard to create.

In essence, an ethical organisation is more than ethical leaders - it is a combination of factors that not only promote ethical behaviour but create the conditions to quickly limit the destructive potential of any ethical failures.

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Article originally published in Forbes Portugalmagazine

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Published in 
11/6/2019
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