What is ethical leadership? In 2021, it’s about respecting your employees’ beliefs, values, and rights. At the forefront of this corporate movement is emotional intelligence, but how did we come to such a breakthrough, and why should we be striving for this change?
How the business landscape has changed
Ethical leadership is far removed from the recent past—we all have mental images of remorseless big businesses of decades past. You can see it in many old movies with men in suits only after profit, where accountability was irrelevant and utterly expendable: Citizen Kane, Office Space, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Insider, Wall Street, etc.
So what’s caused this shift towards a humane business world? Certainly part of this is due to the 2008 financial crash. In the aftermath, it emerged there had been worrying levels of corporate greed and dubious short-term profit boosting antics.
In the recession following the events of late 2008, circa 27,000 businesses in the UK shut down, leading to an employment crisis. It’s likely a key turning point in business history—it was clear something had to change.
This began calls for change in attitudes. In a 2012 piece from the International Journal of Business and Social Science, under the title of Impact of Ethical Leadership on Employee Job Performance, it’s argued:
“Ethics must indeed begin at the top. Leaders cannot shrink from their obligations to set a moral example for their followers; formal ethical codes and ethics training have little chance of success unless the ethical actions and behaviour of top management are consistent with what they teach. Leaders are the key to determine the outcome of organisational goals and to set the tone for employee behaviour which may include promotion, appraisal and strategies. Organisational leaders should encourage employees by leading by examples; they have the responsibility to define organizational norms and values, live up to expectations and encourage their followers to adopt same.”
A new era of workplace ethics
A decade after the financial crash and we’re in an era where business culture is a major motivational force for employees.
Leadership is at the forefront of this—there’s been a post-recession shift in attitudes. Now, more businesses are aiming to keep staff happier, with the focus being greater productivity. It’s all the rage, from influential websites like the Huffington Post to thought leaders such as Elon Musk (who admitted to sleeping on his office floor during intensive projects, consequently showing staff he was willing to get stuck in—he said he wanted to suffer more than any other employee).
So ethical leadership can be a force to be reckoned with—it takes some adjustment, and some sectors suggest this positive psychology approach isn’t suitable for them (such as an in an environment of meritocracy).
But startups and emerging businesses are more likely to take on this progressive approach. Millennials and Generation Z workers are helping to lead this shift, but it is up to already established business if they want to make the move over to this way of operating.
But what are the key attributes of ethical leadership?
- Making decisions that add value
- Appreciate and encourage initiative
- Leadership by example
- And finally, emotional intelligence
What they can establish is workplace culture—this is a huge part in motivating employees. Management styles that drive success come from employees who are honest and transparent, which has the knock on effect of a happier workforce.
That’s the theory, anyway. And many businesses have been doing their bit, with the result being reports on Why well-being works for business.
That guardian piece notes “offers of weekly yoga sessions and free healthy breakfasts to rewards for cycling to work” and becoming commonplace. It adds:
“The idea of wellbeing schemes is not new. But now a small number of companies are offering a range of initiatives aimed at tackling the mental health and stress-related problems faced by a growing number of today’s workforce.”
Here’s the rub…
The crux of the issue—how do you embrace emotional intelligence? It’s about establishing a human connection.
You need to be sensitive about looking after your staff. Appreciate their human needs: how they handle stress, if they’re having proper downtime, if they’re being overworked, whether they’re fulfilled in their role etc.
Leaders are now being transparent with their approach. If you focus on creating an environment of appreciation that supports staff members and recognises them as people, it may be possible to eradicate the mistakes of the past and head towards a working environment based on equality.
Emotional intelligence test
So do you think you have what it takes to advance your leadership? You can take this Emotional Intelligence Test—the steps to positive change begin by challenging your current performance. Find any issues? Then make your first steps towards advancing your leadership skill set.
You can also read this piece on Wellbeing and workplace performance from Acas to find out about what you can do to help your employees.
Kate Palmer is the HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula UK. The business consultant provides SMEs with assistance and advice on employment law, human resources, and health & safety.