Organisational Pollution and Ethical Choice

Our choices are made within a framework of consequence, some externally applied, some internally moderated. Our ethical framework, the moral principles that govern our behaviour, is neither absolute, not rigid: it’s learned and flexible, influenced through a range of factors, some of which exist as pressure from our communities, and some of which originates as organisational pollution. It’s within this fluid structure that our leadership choices are made, and are judged, often by multiple concurrent courts of popular opinion.

Landscape of Trust - Triangle of Trust

There is a gap between our intention, and our action, and between our action, and our impact. The relationships that exist are causal, but not deterministic. Our intention shapes our action, but it does not determine it. I may intend to be good, but my actions may betray that fact. I may act in a way that i believe to be good, but the impact may be different from that intended. In reality, the links between values and intention, and action, and impact, are stretched thin.

Culture fails within an organisation when these links are broken: when behaviour as exhibited loses coherence with assumed ethical frameworks: i say ‘assumed’, because there is both an organisational and individual assumption ofttimes that we are aligned in intent and value, when in reality, multiple pressures act upon us, and different internal checks are used, to keep us within a loose frame of alignment.

We often talk about ‘peer pressure’, and there is plenty of evidence that we are socially moderated, that individual behaviour is not as free as we may care to think. Partly this is driven by a fear of social consequence and exclusion. But it’s willingly embraced: it’s the cohesive force on our communities, a force that moderates extreme outlier behaviours into acceptable norms.

We could consider our ethical framework, in some context, as our internal judge: new actions are held up against this frame to see how they fit. But it’s a noisy courtroom. Ethical and cultural failure is sometimes deliberate, a trading off of varied pressures. Sometimes the price of standing up is high. Look at the treatment of whistleblowers, whose reward for reporting on unethical behaviour is often bullying, disenfranchisement, and social exclusion.

Last weekend i was walking through a field when the person in front of me threw a drinks can on the ground. I muttered to my friend, moaned about the behaviour, explained that that type of behaviour was unthinkable to me, but entirely failed to confront the man who threw the can down. The can now lying on the ground was an explicit failure of his ethical framework, and a tacit failure of mine. Whilst i was able to observe and disagree, my lack of action was the mechanism by which culture fails. It’s often through these trade offs that the small steps to the cliff edge are taken.

I did the same thing in another context recently: a racist taxi driver complaining about immigrants. I tried to use silence to indicate displeasure, but in reality it was a moral cowardice that prevented me countering his view: don’t get me wrong, i rationalised it extremely well. I convinced myself of all sorts of reasons why i would not speak like that, how abhorrent his language was. I internally claimed the moral high ground, whilst externally failing to colonise any ground whatsoever. Indeed, i actively leveraged open a cultural rift.

Culture is complex, but ultimately moderated through the actions of every individual, in the moment, through individual action, or lack thereof.

Organisational pollution is a feature of systems that leave individuals unwilling to challenge formal authority: where trust is low, or cost is high, either cost in terms of formal sanction, or cost in terms of social exclusion.

Perhaps our role in considering the development of Social Leadership is twofold: to help leaders identify organisational pollution, and to provide access to the type of power that lets us counter toxic, dominant, cultural effects. In other words, how can we produce leaders within a system who are able to overcome the system: how can we use a system of dominant cultural effect to counter that very system of dominant cultural effect, when the effect is felt as pervasive pollution, and direct application of social consequence around dissent?

If we consider the two aspects of the organisation, the formal systems, that which we can see, own, and control, and the social system, the network of trust, pride, and social authority that is invisible from the outside, then it’s clear that ethics sit within the social. For sure, we can write rules within the formal system, but behaviour is also moderated by the social.

Providing leaders with the lens to understand this, the tools to observe it, and the power to counter it, is what effective leadership development should surely be about. A highly coherent culture is a feature of a Socially Dynamic organisation: a fractured and polluted one is the culture of a broken one.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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2 Responses to Organisational Pollution and Ethical Choice

  1. Excellent post. I’m also guilty of taking “the moral high ground” with differing cultural mindsets I encounter. I chose not to get ensnarled with a stranger as it’s often a no win situation. I have on occasion challenged (in a very kind way of course) to make a differing view point with close friends in conversation, because it’s conversation. I agree the cultural pollution is a menace. You’re on the right track with your thinking. Perhaps with enough awareness, as with anything given quality attention, I think cultural shifts can and will happen.

  2. vladepap says:

    While I choose my battles, I do get into it with strangers on occasion. However, in professional contexts, I feel more trepidation, more of a tendency to tread lightly. I think there is something to be said about the way organisations pollute or build us up. There is potential for both. Does the dominant status quo erode or build our confidence? I’ve recently received feedback in two spheres of existence, one personal and one professional. Both statements commented on the amount of confidence I exhibit, in my personal life quite a lot, but in my professional ‘public’ life, to be improved. These comments have had me reflect on the effect I am allowing the organization I choose to associate with have on me. The extent to which I allow it to erode my sense of professionalism, which, it would seem, it does. And the ways in which I can reclaim, reknit my sense of self so that I feel whole again. An interesting reflection, thanks Julian.

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