Everyday ethics of relationships

The Constructors, 1950

Picture: BAL21431: The Constructors, 1950, Leger, Fernand (1881-1955) / Musee Leger, Biot, France / Bridgeman Images

Here is a different way of thinking about business ethics, one that focuses on relationships and how these change. In other words, those small decisions and actions that we take daily that over the course of time come to affect us and those that we work with. Sometimes the results have positive ethical effects, but sometimes not. Let us take two quite different examples, one a growing loss of voice, the other being caught by surprise by an important person.

You start working with an established team and it is clear to you that something is not right.  Members of the team sees the world in very similar ways. And when faced with bad news they back each other up to establish a more comforting view of reality. They disregard your views that there is a problem and back each other up with greater energy. Later you try to take a halfway position on another issue using language which they relate to and toning down the message. This gets a better reaction but is still rejected. You accommodate further and in doing so you find acceptance. You feel you’re having an impact with nods around the table but limited future commitment. Months later you reflect: what has changed? In fact, nothing has, apart from you.

You are supporting a senior director on a major change programme and over a short period of time you have built a relationship. She tells you her current thoughts over a quick coffee. She sketches out some ideas on a paper napkin, including a hastily drawn organisational structure. The implications of this short conversation may come to affect hundreds of people for years to come, the majority of which you will never know. Caught by surprise what do you say? How hard do you push, particularly if you believe the wrong course has been chosen? Sometimes these interactions can be rapid and decisions taken in the space of a couple of minutes – both by what is said, and not said. What time do we have to reflect and consider the implications?

What links both examples is the way that we can be drawn in and become changed. Here we see the effect of power relations of a group and flattery of an important person, but there are many others. We think it is helpful to draw attention to those small ethical dilemmas of relationships that often develop. To us this is just as important as those ‘big’ ethical and corporate responsibility questions that people in organisations face. They are important because they are so ordinary and yet often unnoticed.

April will see the publication of the book I have been writing with James Traeger called Organisation Development: A Bold Explorer’s Guide (published by Libri books) in which these and other ideas are explored.

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