What would you do if you found a colleague’s behaviour unacceptable, even unethical? Most of us believe we would speak up; however, research shows we often fail to act on our ethical intent. This results in moral muteness, the gap between our ethical ambitions and our choice of behaviour.
Ethics research shows that when employees hear their leaders discuss ethical challenges and role model ethical behaviour, they too are predisposed to ethical accountability. Where indifference is perceived, employees, in turn, assume they can ignore ethical accountability.
The social phenomenon of ‘moral muteness’ emerges in organisations when leaders fail to speak to the ethical challenges accompanying the pursuit of results. Choice of language transmits what is most important. Suppose an organisation’s language amplifies economic or political imperatives but is light on their accompanying ethical challenges. In this case, it is effectively silencing the day to day ethical dimension of workplace decisions. Moral muteness flourishes where leaders fail to make ethical consideration part of everyday conversations. It also requires leaders to take decisive action to manage cultural pressures. Organisational culture is dynamic and requires leaders to regularly measure and adjust systems and processes to ensure a speak-up culture emerges that will protect personal and organisational reputations.
Moral muteness can and has flourished from the Boardroom to the post room, with its practitioners oblivious to the inherent risks this creates. Personal reputations have never been more vulnerable to workplace pressures than in today’s low trust hyper-connected world. The backlash against leaders found wanting is swift and devastating, as recently seen in the departures of AMP’s chair David Murray, Westpac’s ex-CEO Brian Hartzer, Rio Tinto’s departing executive team, and QBE’s previous CEO’s sudden departure.