How a person responds to the ethics of a situation will be influenced by several things. Character is one, plus the skills and knowledge they’ve learnt. Yet what can sometimes render all these ineffective is something firmly in the hands of the firm’s leadership. It’s undue pressure.
Undue pressure deals more with the situation and less with the character of those involved. That’s because undue pressure invariable comes from people with little to no direct involvement in the situation itself but whose decisions can influence its handling a great deal.
This is the manager or executive responsible for setting the conditions under which the situation arises and how it is dealt with. For conditions, read performance, priorities and culture. So if that leader is placing their people under obligations to achieve this performance target or that aspect of client service, and the only way in which people can realistically deliver that is by ignoring the ethical side of a situation, then that would very much be classed as unethical leadership.
Deeds, not Words
And it would be unethical even if that leader believed very much in ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘setting a personal example’. That’s because how a leader frames performance expectations and cultural norms for their team will have a very big influence on the capacity of that team to deliver decisions within the ethical framework set up by the overall firm. Much more than the best of words and best of intentions might have.
It’s fine of course to give people challenging targets, but not ones which can only be met by the team acting unethically in some way. In the long run of course, that pressure to steer round the ethics of situations will come back and bite that firm. Unethical decisions invariable deliver some form of repercussion, if not always for that leader, but certainly for the firm and the trust that others have built up in it over the years.
Undo Undue Pressure
So what can be done about undue pressure? The focus should be on mitigation and not elimination – few firms operate without some form of pressure. The obvious starting point is in performance management. Make sure that you don’t just talk to people about it, but also listen to what feedback they give you, through appraisals for example.
Look for patterns in management information, especially around the end of performance management periods. In essence, look at when undue pressures are most likely to be experienced.
Then there’s risk assessments. Where do the main ethical risks lie and how pressures might influence people’s approach to those risks? How have you incorporated this into management information?
Then look in role descriptions. Are those for leaders clear on their responsibilities for avoiding putting their people under undue pressure? This may be framed in more pertinent words, such as coercion or duress. Either which way, what matters is that they should be responsible for not putting their people in situations that deprive them of their freedom of choice. Doing the right thing should always be a realistic option for people.
Finally, it’s relatively easy for ethical scenarios to be used as learning resource, in which examples of how undue pressure can influence situations are drawn up and discussed in team meetings.