Forbes: How to build a culture of ethical leadership

Forbes: How to build a culture of ethical leadership

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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.

In the world of research and business, trust is the cornerstone. Recently, a Harvard Business School professor, once known for her research on the psychology of cheating and dishonesty, has been accused of fraud involving deceit and data tampering.

As a leader in higher education, I oversee teams of scientists and researchers who commit their lives to the work of discovery. Researchers share their data and findings, relying on established methodologies; the collaborative process allows for scrutiny and the advancement of knowledge. But the consequences of deceit in research can be dire, often influencing government and corporate decisions with potentially adverse outcomes.

But my concern extends beyond academia into the world of business. I worry about less apparent forms of deception, such as covering up lackluster project results due to job insecurities. How can organizations encourage employees to speak the truth, no matter the consequences? As business leaders, our response to such missteps can set the course for success.

Looking back at the pandemic, I realize it was impossible to transition our organization to remote learning without making a few mistakes. We had no playbook or historical references. We made the best decisions possible during a challenging time. What mattered in the end was how I dealt with oversights and errors on the path to finding solid ground. Drawing on my expertise in emergency management helped considerably in the darkest days of COVID-19. I also relied on my decades of experience solving complex problems with tight time restraints.

Leaders must understand that mistakes happen and catching them early can minimize negative impacts. For example, as a new grad working at Florida Power and Light, my work involved computer programming. I quickly learned that when developing computer applications, errors caught in the concept stage of development were easy to fix, whereas correcting mistakes at the computer programming level could result in hours of frustration.

When I think of how minuscule mistakes can add up and radically alter outcomes, the analogy of a pilot failing to correct course comes to mind. If a pilot flying from Los Angeles to New York City veers off track and turns just a few degrees south, the plane could end up in Washington, DC.

The analogy is a powerful reminder. Often, it’s not the dramatic, singular events that steer our lives in the wrong direction. Instead, it’s the subtle, imperceptible small-degree shifts that go unexamined. These seemingly minor deviations, undetected over time, can lead us far from our intended goals.

In steering your organization toward success, here are four guiding principles to consider:

Accept errors and setbacks as part of innovation.

It is critical to understand each team member is viewing a problem or situation through a unique lens. As I discussed in my previous Forbes article, in an innovative workplace, where new ideas are encouraged and experimentation is the norm, errors and setbacks are inherent.

Promote a culture where team members are encouraged to take calculated risks and pursue innovative solutions. When employees understand that making mistakes is permitted as a natural consequence of pushing boundaries and seeking novel solutions, they will be less inclined to cover up those mistakes.

Prioritize early error detection.

As leaders, we must ensure our team members are able to make mistakes without fear of blame or retribution. When individuals feel safe to admit their mistakes, they are more likely to take ownership of their actions and work towards rectification. Creating this type of environment encourages employees to step forward at the first sign of an issue.

An excellent way to keep everyone happily on track is to evaluate progress and review data at the project midpoint. This early detection is crucial because it allows for swift corrective action, preventing a small mistake from snowballing into a more significant, more costly problem.

In addition, developing early error detection can foster accountability among team members because they know their contributions, even if they lead to errors, are valued and considered a vital part of the innovation process.

Encourage continuous learning.

Frame mistakes as a learning opportunity, emphasizing that they are stepping stones to progress. When our students make mistakes, I often focus on “the learning moment.” Remind your team to embrace and learn from inevitable difficulties—after all, many of our most significant life lessons come from overcoming obstacles.

Acknowledge that not every experiment will yield success and that errors are part of the journey. There is always more to learn in the digital era, so encourage your team to lean into challenges and iterate, refine and innovate.

Address deceit in the workplace head-on.

Set an example by demonstrating honesty and transparency in your actions and decisions. When leaders uphold ethical standards, employees are more likely to follow suit. Begin by establishing clear ethical standards and guidelines for behavior within your organization. Emphasize the importance of honesty and integrity in all interactions, from day-to-day tasks to major decision-making processes.

Clearly define consequences for deceitful behavior, which may include disciplinary actions or termination, depending on the severity of the offense. Ensure that these consequences apply across all levels of your organization. Set a zero tolerance for unethical behavior.

Mistakes are bound to happen, so encourage your employees to own and address them head-on. Stress that it is not just about reaching the destination but acting with honesty and integrity along the way.