Bonus Online Article: The Ethical Expectations of Leadership: Building and Busting Trust

September 1, 2015

[oleg prikhodko/getty]
[oleg prikhodko/getty]

My PR world is one of organizational challenges and troubled leadership. One of the collateral damages of this trouble is a loss of trust in leadership, often because of intentional ethical lapses.

I define trust as the absence of fear because when trust is severely damaged or gone, it is replaced by doubt. There is a strategy for sustaining trust, but it requires the systematic participation of leadership. Even in the most adverse circumstances, we expect leaders to be honest and act ethically.

We are surprised and disappointed when they fail.

Meeting ethical expectations

Leaders must implicitly and explicitly recognize the ethical expectations by everyone inside their company and by their constituencies outside their organization. Focus groups, polls and interviews reveal an important list of these ethical expectations:

  1. Find the truth as soon as possible. Tell that truth and act on it immediately.
  2. Raise the tough questions and answer them thoughtfully. This includes asking and answering questions yet to be thought of by those who will be affected by the circumstance.
  3. Teach by parable. Emphasize the right and wrong options.
  4. Vocalize core business values and ideals. Most values are a set of ideas printed and posted without much discussion. The values and ideals of a business are what employees bring to work every day.
  5. Walk the talk. Be accessible — help people understand the organization within the context of its values and ideals at every opportunity.
  6. Help, expect and enforce ethical leadership. People are watching and counting. People know when there are ethical lapses that result in broken trust. When bad things happen in good organizations, it’s those occasional lapses that deepen the troubles.
  7. Protect and foster ethical pathways to the top of the organization. Identify and warn about situations where ethical processes can be compromised, especially among executives who are on upward career trajectories.
  8. Make values more important than profits. Most people seem to enjoy working more when they are with organizations they respect, people they trust and leadership they can rely on. Whenever you find a company that puts values on the same level as profits, there is often even more loyalty and support because the company sacrifices profits for principle. Everybody notices.

Recovering from ethically damaging situations

There is a definite pattern of recovery behaviors that help leadership re-establish trust following a reputation-redefining circumstance. When these situations occur, employ the following strategies:

  1. Talk now. Silence is toxic. Use social media to get information out quickly.
  2. Stop producing victims and critics. Change your behavior and vocabulary, and recognize the power that victims have to further damage your reputation and trusted relationships.
  3. Build a following. Reconnect with those who are critical to building your leadership and trust.
  4. Build trust at every opportunity. Trust is a behavior. You must vocalize, explain and expect it.
  5. Rebuild and maintain your base. Focus on those closest to you — employees, retirees, their families — and those who the organization has relationships with.
  6. Manage the victim dimension. Victims and critics live forever; they are always with you. Pay attention to them. Not doing this often reignites their criticisms and your untrustworthiness.
  7. Manage your own destiny. Everything said, written, broadcast or otherwise created about you and your organization lives forever. You need a strategy to correct, clarify and comment. Failure to manage your own destiny leaves it to somebody else who is ready to do it for you.

Your management recovery mantra should be: If it’s simple, sensible, sincere, constructive and positive, then do it now. Forget the rest.

The greatest ethical leadership responsibility is to recognize, talk about and lead those whose careers are advancing rapidly. After all, the urge to act unethically in small ways happens every day.

The Lexicon of Trust

One of the most serious challenges of building trust and ensuring positive relationships with customers, allies, colleagues, government and employees is what it takes to establish that trust in the first place.

It is, by far, easier to recognize the pattern of the behaviors and attitudes that damage trust or, at least, bring credibility and ethical behavior into question.

Trust is a fragile magical substance like the lignin in trees — it’s the glue that holds the fiber of relationships together. Trust is the most vulnerable agent in a relationship and is the product of ethical behavior.

Here is the Lexicon of Trust Building Concepts:

  1. Trust: Generally the absence of fear; that feeling of reliability and that adverse situations, pain or mistakes have less impact or can be pre-empted if there is a trusted relationship
  2. Candor: Truth with an attitude delivered very promptly — truth plus the facts, truth plus some perspective, truth that reflects the value of other observations on the same set of circumstances and facts
  3. Credibility: Always conferred by others on those whose past behavior, track record and accomplishments warrant it
  4. Integrity: Uncompromising adherence to a code of values by people, products and companies, with the attributes of credibility, candor and sincerity
  5. Sympathy: The ongoing, often continuous, verbalization of regret, embarrassment or personal humiliation, promptly conveyed (i.e., feeling truly sorry for someone who is experiencing pain, but stopping short of taking on that pain)
  6. Empathy/Compassion: Actions that speak louder than words. Empathy and compassion are about doing good and letting the good be self-evident and speak for itself — J.L.
James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, is primarily interested in helping organizations and leaders manage crises, and the negative career impacts that crises impose on leaders. He is an emeritus member of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.


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