Work place culture has been a topic of discussion in the news lately as awful events are uncovered and investigated. As I follow these discussions, my mind keeps returning to a thing called ethical fading and the importance of knowing your own self and your own values.
In his book The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek explains that ethical fading occurs when a company’s culture allows people to act in unethical ways to advance their own interests at the expense of others, whilst falsely believing that they have not compromised their moral principles.
A work place environment fosters ethical fading when it rewards outcomes regardless of the means in which those outcomes are achieved, when integrity is not valued, and when there is little tolerance for falling short of company expectations or performance goals.
There are many corporate examples where ethical fading has resulted in astonishing system wide corruption. Sinek points to the endemic corruption in Wells Fargo where from 2002 until 2016 employees used fraud to meet impossible sales targets.
Interestingly, people involved in ethically dubious practices in a culture that supports ethical fading don’t necessarily struggle with guilt or moral dilemmas. Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick argue that self-deception allows individuals to rationalise their behaviour, enabled by a number of conditions, including using creative language (euphemisms) to obscure the moral or ethical implications of their decisions - in other words the stories they tell themselves about their unethical actions. And seeing past practices as an acceptable standard for similar (albeit slightly poorer) current practices, can result in a shift overtime that normalises unethical and illegal activities (small indiscretions aren’t called out and the norm is shifted).
It all starts with small, seemingly innocuous transgressions that then grow and compound.
This is heavy stuff. And it seems overwhelming when it is seen as a company-wide or system-wide issue.
So why is a life coach writing about it?
I find it is helpful to put a name to the socially constructed environments we find ourselves in. Seeing it as a social construct reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way. It also reminds us how crucial it is that we know our own selves and know how to identify where our own values and integrity lie (helping you do that is my job). Without this as a starting point how could we ever withstand the influence of ethical fading if we were to find ourselves in such a work place.