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Lately, I’ve been deep into assisting companies with employee relations problems rooted in ethical decision-making. It’s eye-opening how managers’ choices can impact employees, customers, the business, and their own futures. I consistently posed a question to business leaders: “What messages, direct or implied, paved the way for these unethical decisions?”

In the dynamic world of business, the relentless pursuit of results is a constant message. Company leaders stress the importance of hitting targets and surpassing expectations. Yet, this unrelenting drive for outcomes can introduce a complex challenge known as “mixed messages.” These mixed messages emerge when leaders emphasize the significance of achieving goals without providing a clear ethical roadmap for attaining them.

Leaders frequently use phrases such as “We have to hit our numbers.” “Get it done!” “Achieve the goals, no matter what.” These rallying cries energize teams to push their limits and strive for excellence. However, ambiguity may arise in the strategies used to achieve them.

This predicament places managers in a challenging position. They bear the responsibility of fulfilling the company’s mandates while also maintaining ethical norms and making choices that align with the organization’s values. Leaders play a critical role in preventing the erosion of company values and the potential for rule-bending due to mixed messages.

Here are strategies leaders can use to strike the balance between success and doing things the right way!

1. Communicate Clearly: Leaders must explicitly communicate expectations, emphasizing the importance of achieving goals while staying within ethical boundaries. This empowers managers to make well-informed decisions.
2. Lead by Example: Leaders set the tone by exhibiting unwavering ethical behavior and principled decision-making. These encourages similar conduct among all team members.
3. Empower Ethical Decision-Making: Grant managers the autonomy to make decisions. Empowered managers are more inclined to choose ethical paths, even when the pressure to deliver results is intense.
4. Foster Open Dialogue: Create an environment where managers can comfortably discuss challenges that stem from mixed messages. This allows the team to seek guidance without fear of judgement.
5. Recognize Ethical Conduct: Acknowledge and reward instances where managers prioritized ethical choices while achieving objectives. This reinforces that ethical conduct is valued and recognized.

What can a manager do when experiencing the mixed message of results versus values and ethics?

1. Seek Clear Direction: When caught in the crossfire of conflicting messages, managers should proactively seek clarity. Ask leaders for direct guidance and collaborate on solutions that balance the performance objectives with the company’s core values. Determine if trade-offs are necessary.
2. Prioritize Ethical Choices: In the process of decision-making, always consider and prioritize ethics. Remember that short-term gains achieved through unethical means can cast a lasting negative impact on the organization’s reputation and your livelihood.
3. Speak Up: If the pursuit of results begins to compromise ethical standards, managers have a responsibility to voice their concerns through proper channels. This not only safeguards the organization’s integrity but also promotes an environment of accountability and responsible conduct.

In business, striking a balance between achieving results and upholding ethics is critical. While mixed messages may introduce confusion, steadfast leadership and principled decision-making can restore equilibrium. Success becomes genuine when your goals match your values, leading to achievements that last, and a reputation that leaders and managers can be proud of.

Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do. Potter Stewart