While I generally focus on communication topics, leadership has also been an important area of study for me. Having mentored many young officers and noncommissioned officers during my military career and trained even more leaders since leaving the Army, I think this is an important concept. A person’s understanding of leadership will greatly impact their communication in the workplace.
Leaders are often under a great deal of stress. Quotas must be achieved. Deals must be closed. The pressure to succeed can be intense. Further, the stakes can be high. Reputations and futures may be at stake. During such times, leaders may be tempted to become flexible in their ethics.
In this short article, I would like to focus on one particular area of leadership ethics that is often overlooked; one that impacts a leader’s most important assets. That is the ethical treatment of subordinates.
Ethical Guides For Leadership
Years ago, I was providing training to intelligence personnel and interrogators. I was tasked to teach on the legal and ethical treatment of prisoners of war and other detainees. There was a great deal of interest in avoiding the repetition of improper treatment that had been identified in Iraq and elsewhere.
As I think back on this training years later, I see it as a good example of the problem all leaders face from time to time. Interrogators are often under a lot of stress. They have an individual in custody that has information we need. This information could very well save lives. Senior leaders are often demanding the interrogators get that information now.
The obstacle between interrogators and the information they need is the prisoner, who likely does not want to freely provide that information. As interrogators approaches this obstacle, they realize that have complete power over the prisoner. The combination of the stress to gain information and the power they have over the prisoner can lead them to resort to unethical and even illegal behavior.
How can we avoid that?
Ends Not Means
In difficult situations like that experienced by interrogators, leaders need a guide to help them ethically navigate through the situation. They need a reminder to help them avoid behaviors that can be unethical and even illegal. Let me share an idea that I shared with those interrogators years ago.
There is a theory in moral philosophy known as deontological ethics. This theory of ethics is based on the concept of “duty.” The root word, deon, is Greek for “duty or obligation.” This theory of ethics includes a few key principles. One of these principles is: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
For the interrogator, this means that they cannot simply look at that prisoner only as the means by which they will obtain the information their leaders are demanding. They must also remember that the prisoner is a human being (an end), and treat them in light of this truth. In even more simple terms, they must remember always to treat prisoners as people (ends) and not as things (means). If they allow themselves to begin seeing prisoners as things and not people, it becomes much easier for them to slip and begin treating the prisoner unethically and illegally.
Treating Employees as Ends, Not Just Means
Both military and corporate leaders can face similar situations as these interrogators. They are under pressure from clients and superiors to meet deadlines and produce results. Additionally, they wield considerable power over their subordinates. These workers, needing work to take care of themselves and their families, often have few options available to them. Similar to the prisoner facing an interrogator, they are under the complete control of their boss.
Sometimes leaders, as a result of outside pressures, may begin to treat their workers simply as means and not ends. They begin to see them simply as the means to reach that quota or meet the expectations of more senior leaders. The workers become things. They are no longer people. They no longer have lives or families or even identities outside their role in the workplace. At this point, leaders will likely begin treating their workers in an unethical manner.
Lead Don’t Manage
There is a related principle I heard frequently during my military career. This principle states: “You manage things, you lead people.” I will not take the time to discuss this idea thoroughly (perhaps in a future article), but I mention it because it’s connection to the ethical principle stated above. When you begin to manage, not lead, people, you are beginning to treat them as things. You are also likely beginning to see them simply as means and not ends.
What about you? Have you ever found yourself slipping into this error? I think most leaders at one time or another may have found themselves beginning to view their workers as only means and not ends.
Let me share one last idea I shared with those interrogators years ago, that might help you when you find yourselves slipping in your treatment of subordinates. When interacting with your subordinates, if you ever suspect that you are beginning to view them as things and not people, take an immediate break. Continuing the interaction under those circumstances may lead to unethical or illegal behavior. Take a break. Gather your thoughts. And check yourself as to how you are really viewing your workers. Then, do the right thing.
As good communication is an important part of leadership and the ethical treatment others in the workplace, I will remind you as I often do: be quick to hear and slow to speak.
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