Are we an ethically deficient nation?

This article first appeared in DNA India on June 1st, 2016.

The best definition of integrity I have read is: Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. The real test of our integrity comes when we face a dilemma and there isn’t anyone around to see if we take the right or the wrong action. Do we give in to temptation and make the wrong choice or do we still make the tougher, right choice?

Our integrity is tested every day, in every little thing that we do. Do we wait till the person whose vehicle we scratched comes back, or do we zoom off knowing that by doing so, we save ourselves time, money and hassle? Do we try and return a wallet we find on the road or do we keep it for ourselves? One of the best situations for seeing this play out is at red lights late in the night. You can almost hear the gears ticking in the minds of the drivers. They would have initially stopped at the light. However, seeing no vehicles coming from the other direction, they would start inching forward. A furtive look to see if a policeman is around and then a quick acceleration through the red light shows that urgency has won over integrity yet again.

One might consider these little acts of ethical obfuscation to be inconsequential. “How can it really hurt us?”, might be the question on your minds. But think about what a child sitting in the car is learning from his father or mother violating traffic rules with nonchalance. The child is probably imbibing that it is quite alright to break rules when no one is watching. These behaviours manifest themselves even at an older age. I know of top B-schools which work on the basis of honour codes. Here, seasoned professionals cheat on assignments with impunity (and with ingenuity since any transgressions that are caught can have significant repercussions). So can integrity be taught? I remember attending moral science lectures at school but don’t remember much of what I learnt in them. What I do remember, however, are the behaviours modelled by my parents and teachers. That has remained with me to this day.

Think about what happens in organisations then. We all carry with us, our learned behaviours from the various organisations that we have been part of. Organisational behaviours, however, are learned from the leaders just as we as kids, learn our behaviours from our parents and teachers. It is, thus, imperative that leaders walk the talk. You can’t build an organisational culture of respect when leaders are often rude and disrespectful to people. Similarly, ethical organisations are those where the leaders set high standards of ethics. Enron is a good example of what happens when leaders take the easy way out.

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