Three Ways to Create More Ethical Behavior at Work

Few of us would disagree that ethical behavior is important in the workplace. Yet how we do this is a much more challenging discussion! Below are three practical ways to foster a stronger ethical work culture.

  1. Visible Moral Symbols. Recent research published in the Academy of Management Journal revealed that individuals who have visible moral symbols in their workspace facilitate stronger ethical conduct. A virtuous quote, a religious image or a moral sign serve as visible reminders – both to yourself and more specifically, to those you work with – that ethical behavior is important. Google’s lead value, “Don’t do evil” is a great example of this (though you could debate if this has shifted in their recent value change from “Don’t do evil” to “Do the right thing”). Before you try this, remember to consider the cultural nuances involved in doing this effectively!
  2. Public Ovation. In Trust Factor, Paul J. Zak provides fascinating evidence that connects trust development with activities which release oxytocin (something our body produces which makes us both trust others more and become more trustworthy). In short, Zak teaches that creating moments which release oxytocin will build trust. Since trust is a foundational moral value (partially developed by congruence between what we say and what we do), we have opportunity to deepen trust be facilitating oxytocin-inducing moments. Public praise (or what Zak refers to as ovation) is an effective way to do this. When you catch someone doing the right thing, create a moment of public praise (which also serves as a Visible Moral Symbol!).
  3. Decrease the Gap. Ethics is a combination of two things: what we believe, and, what we do. Inevitably, there will be a gap between them! Effective leaders continually work to decrease their gap. Doing so increases trust and a climate for ethical behavior (see above!). One effective (and humbling) way to decrease the gap is to become a person who regularly asks for feedback. In Thanks for the Feedback (Even When It’s Off-base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood), Stone and Heen remind us that research shows we all have 3.2 blind spots. This sobering fact should change the way you live! It also provides a practical method by which to decrease the gap!

Successful organizations do more that pay lip-service to the need to act ethically. These three practices can help turn what you believe into what your organization does. What other practices have you used?

Head ShotDr. Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Email:



Jena McGregor (2015). Promoting more ethical behavior. LA Times, 2015.

Paul J. Zak (2017). Trust Factor. AMAcom.

Dr. Henry Cloud (2006). Integrity: The courage to meet the demands of reality. Harper Business.

Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen (2015). Thanks for the Feedback. Penguin Books.

Nurturing Your Inner Leader: The Value of Your Values

Can you remember your last high pressure sales experience? What emotions did it stir in you – excitement, fear, caution, anger?

A few weeks ago I was offered a fantastic deal on something that required me to make a decision in a few minutes. At the time, the salesman’s high pressure tactics caused a surprising amount of emotions and anxiety. I ended up declining the offer but the experience has made me assess what really occurred when I felt stress about this $250 decision.

Research shows that we encounter stress when we are faced with situations or decisions that conflict with our values. What we often label stress, discomfort or uncertainty is actually a demonstration of a cause and effect relationship. When you are faced with situations that are incongruous with your beliefs or your values (the cause), we are affected by stress-causing emotions (the effect). When you do not understand your values, your ability to handle stress decreases and can cause even more stress (Brendel).

Research shows us that resilient people understand their values and use them to minimize stress. Here are three ways that defined values can help you:

  1. Identify the source of stress: Values can help you identify the cause of your stress. Imagine that you feel anxious every time you speak with your boss. This indicates a value conflict. What are your values? What value(s) does your boss conflict with? Once you understand this, you can begin to develop strategies to deal with the value conflict root issue.
  2. Reduce stress: Understanding your values can help you respond to day-to-day stress in healthier ways. Over time, your value clarity will help you avoid stress altogether. Your brains will quietly process the difficult situation with your boss and tell you that your value of harmony conflicts with your boss’s value of innovation through conflict and you will quietly respond with a tried-and-true strategy. You likely won’t even know this value-assessment process occurred.
  3. Avoid or reduce conflict: Values can also help you structure your life to minimize unnecessary stress. When you know your values you can be intentional about aligning your life with them. If you value sobriety, you should not be frequenting places where alcohol is served. Conversely, if you value teamwork, you should look for jobs which involve collaboration and not a lone-ranger role.

My indecision about the high pressure sale was due to value conflict.

  • I know that my wife and I consult each other before making financial decisions over $200 – value conflict!
  • I know our financial priorities and this item was not on the list – value conflict!
  • I also believe that something too good to be true is almost always too good to be true – value conflict!

As a result of knowing my values, I experienced peace about my decision to say no because I aligned my decision with my values. This demonstrates the value of values.

Define your values | Memorize Your Values | Revisit Your Values When Facing Stress

Socrates once offered us the wise counsel, “know thyself”. As we come to define and understand our values, we provide ourselves with a filter by which to understand and minimize some of the stress we encounter. And who amongst us wouldn’t like a bit less stress!


Head ShotDr. Jeff Suderman is a values-driven consultant, professor and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman



Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

Brendel, D. (Sept. 8, 2015). Manage stress by knowing what you value. Harvard Business Review on-line

Do Your Organizational Values Have Legs?

I love it when organizations have clearly defined values. I love it even more when you see those values exemplified in practice. However, the opposite also occurs!

A friend recently told me about a less-than-positive experience during her new employee orientation. She works as a nurse and was hired by a well-regarded hospital. Their orientation blended new staff from every department and role. boxed lunchIn this particular orientation, there was a new cohort of medical doctor interns. At the catered lunch, my friend took a lunch box from one of the two tables in the room. As she took the lunch, she was told that these lunches were only for the interns and that she needed to take her lunch from the other table. Attendees observed that the interns received a higher quality lunch and a clear hierarchy was silently established.

For an organization touting the values of respect, integrity and professionalism, there was a gap between what was stated and what was practiced. Shane Atchison purports that organizations which post their company values all over their walls have serious culture problems. In other words, a company’s values need to be lived, not talked about. While it is easy to point a finger, there are few of us who have not done the same thing over our lives.

Which value is the most difficult to practice in your organization? Where do you have opportunity to tighten the gap between what you preach and what you practice? If you don’t know, I’ll bet your employees do!