A trusted friend and colleague recently shared a personal anecdote with me in response to an article I posted about ethical leadership, and I felt compelled to share his story with you. For the purposes of this sequel, I’ll call him Paul. When Paul reached out to me, he echoed the idea that integrity is the cornerstone of a successful corporate culture. Without it, an organization loses its competitive advantage.
In the article that prompted Paul’s response, I highlighted Max Bazerman’s new model for ethical leadership. What captured my attention in Bazerman’s model was his focus on increasing your impact through influence. Bazerman encourages leaders to “think about how you can influence your colleagues with the norms you set and the decision-making environment you create.”
Paul noticed that, on occasion, employees found comfort in saying, “Sure, it may be against the spirit of the law, but it’s within the letter,” or “It’s so small that the governing body will never notice it.” So Paul established a norm that he felt supported his aspirations for a culture that embodied integrity. He instituted the Sunshine Rule.
The rule stated that you should not do anything, or advise a client to do anything, that you couldn’t feel good about if the idea or practice saw the light of day. Paul explained that the Sunshine Rule was an effort to instill the idea that his company was a first-class business, so it should conduct its business in a first-class way.
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In my experience, setting norms and modeling ethical decision-making were instrumental in having a positive influence on our people during difficult times. While I didn’t give it a name at the time, today I call it transformative influence, or transfluence. Cultivating good patterns for behavior sets the stage for a transfluent culture. It’s helpful if everyone participates in co-creating these positive norms, but it’s essential that leaders model them.
Paul and other employees could more easily embed this practice as a norm if he gave the aspiration a name. By naming it the Sunshine Rule, Paul and his fellow leaders had made it real. Everyone could readily communicate, reinforce, and include this practice in the culture. Nudge coauthors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein support this idea. They say leaders can “design the ‘architecture’ surrounding the choices to prompt people to make value-creating decisions.”
The Sunshine Rule is precisely that architecture. It offers the blueprints that employees consult when asking themselves about their decisions. Do they create value or jeopardize the company’s integrity? The next time you observe employee behavior that could put you on shaky ground, consider following Paul’s example by creating your own norms for ethical practices. A quote by Helen Keller provides apt guidance in the spirit of Paul’s story: “Keep your face to the sun, and you will never see the shadows.”