The Ethics of Decision Making Back »

Written by B. Lynn Gordon (former SDSU Extension Agricultural Leadership Specialist).

Making Ethical Decisions

Leaders often make challenging decisions. In your leadership role, you agreed to take on the responsibility that comes with the role and your actions are constantly being viewed by others. How you choose to make decisions will impact the type of leader you are and how followers like employees, committee members or volunteers will respect you. Will they view you as a leader with integrity or not?

Unfortunately we hear far too often about situations where a leader made an unethical choice. First, they tell us it was poor judgement or just an honest mistake and expect us to believe they did not know they were making a decision where they intentionally were being dishonest. Making decisions as a leader is not always easy. Oftentimes the decisions have to be made in the context of economic, professional and social pressures; which can often clash with our ethical standards or individual values and thus can complicate moral issues.

Values vs. Ethics

We often confuse values and ethics. They are not interchangeable. Values are core beliefs that guide or motivate our attitudes. Values are influenced by our parents, family background, religious beliefs, personal experiences and professional norms. Values are the things we prize the most and can change during our lifetime.

Ethics is the ability to discern right from wrong. It is the commitment to do what is right, good and proper. When making decisions, leaders must be aware there will be both negative and positive consequences to those impacted by the decision. With proper ethics you are striving to meet a moral compass of right from wrong.

Questions to Ask

In order to make an ethical decision you must always think of the outcome. How would you answer these questions?

  • How would you feel about the decision you made if it was printed on the front page of the newspaper?
  • What would your children or a family member say about your decision?
  • Could you continue to feel comfortable being a role model for you children?

Ethical leaders are constantly thinking about “what is the right thing to do?” rather than just making the easiest, most profitable, fastest decision or a decision based on the way it has always been done in addition to other factors. Depending on if you are serving employees, members, volunteers, stakeholders, etc, you must focus on making a decision based on integrity and one where others will continue to respect you for your ethics. Your decision should be fair, well-thought out and focused around on a moral compass of ethics.

Employee Impact

I often hear from employees who have been impacted by unethical decisions. It is a very traumatic and frustrating time for them. They are scared to speak up when exposed to unethical decisions, made by their supervisors or someone with higher rank than them, for fear it will impact their future employment. They fear being demoted, losing their job or being treated unfairly. When a supervisor is more focused making decisions without considering the impact it will have on an employee or employees they are not thinking about the moral compass of ethics and the negative outcome that will result. If you have made a mistake as a leader, admit it, own up to it and be compassionate to those who your decision impacted. This is the sign of an ethical leader.

The Bottom Line

People prefer to work with or be associated with people they can trust, are credible and show consideration to others. Unfortunately ethics is not discussed as often in businesses or organizations as business elements such as finances, yet the impact of unethical behavior can shatter businesses and organizations and the lives of those impacted.

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