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The values you set as a leader aren’t just fodder for inspirational posters and new-hire pamphlets, and they certainly aren’t a branding tagline. Yet too many employees report a deep chasm between the ideals their leaders broadcast and their lived experiences in the workplace. In a 2020 survey of job seekers, 62% said their recent employers had a set of core values, but about 16% said they didn’t live up to those values.
As humans, we love to think in binaries. We crave the simplicity of a reality where things are either right or wrong, good or bad. But of course, that’s not the world we live in. The business world is no exception; it’s rife with difficult gray-area situations that throw into sharp relief the difference between moral theory and ethical decision-making in practice. Managers and other company leaders navigate ethical dilemmas big and small every single day — and how they handle them depends on their framework of values.
Related: When Good Leaders Create Bad Results
A few years ago, for example, my co-founder was in a horrible boating accident that left him in a medically induced coma. Deciding how to move forward was difficult. He’d been heavily involved in making critical decisions at the business unit level, but we couldn’t just halt operations while he was incapacitated. Some of my associates wanted to remove him from the business to keep things running smoothly, but I couldn’t do it.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty upset to come out of a coma and find my business duties swiped from underneath me. So instead, I temporarily assumed his duties and gave them back the moment he walked out of the hospital. He had been instrumental in building a global network of ambassadors and advisors for the business through his own connections, and this decision helped retain their trust in the business.
That scenario may seem like an extreme example, but ethical dilemmas face entrepreneurs and business leaders every day in unforeseen ways. Keeping one’s moral compass on course can be surprisingly difficult at times. Here are a few ways to make sure you don’t lose your integrity as you continue to evolve as a leader:
1. Take stock of your team’s values
The thing about everyday ethics is that they’re subject to interpretation, and you can’t expect your teammates to adopt your values with no questions asked. After all, when faced with a tricky decision, good people (for good reasons) can reach different conclusions surrounding the best way forward. Yet when values are shared among all team members, productivity soars and people feel more connected to the overall mission. To find the middle ground, take stock of your team’s short- and long-term values.
Short-term values are things like generosity, accuracy, or having fun. They can change depending on the project or team. For example, having fun wouldn’t be applicable when launching a tech platform for a funeral home, and accuracy might work against the “move fast and break things” ethos of a hackathon. On the other hand, long-term values — think fostering an environment that’s respectful of all employees and following equitable promotion practices — should never change.
You can determine the top values of your team members by presenting them with various scenarios and asking them how they’d respond. Incorporate the values you can use into the organization, and repeat this exercise when there’s a significant change in the team structure or overall vision of the business.
2. Live out your values publicly through your work
Employees will take behavioral cues from you, so take care to live out your values publicly. Hold your colleagues and direct reports accountable to the values you’ve agreed upon, and oust truly bad actors when you need to. Employees don’t need to know the reasoning behind every decision, but you can use team-building exercises to highlight choices you made because of a shared value (rather than the bottom line).
Behavior modeling should include self-care practices, too. After all, being consumed by your work is not only unhealthy, but it could also sabotage your ability to stay true to your values. Digital marketing company Prism understands the detrimental effects of pushing too hard and made quite a decision this past May: Its entire workforce was given a full week off for rest, reflection and relaxation.
When you work long hours, your patience wears thin, your objectivity goes out the door and you start making the easy — rather than the right — decision. Imagine how energized the employees at Prism felt after being told they were being given a much-needed respite, and how committed they felt once they returned to work.
3. Find accountability partners to keep you honest
When striving to keep in touch with your values, don’t attempt it alone. Throughout my professional career, I’ve had a diverse set of advisors who’ve been emotionally and energetically invested in my success. They’ve helped keep me on track without compromising my personal values. After my co-founder’s accident, for example, I stuck by my values and my choice paid off — not necessarily in the form of a big payday, but in showing my partner that I wasn’t willing to forfeit the trust he placed in me.
When you’re evaluating a potential accountability partner, discuss your goals and where you see yourself in five or 10 years. This person should be unbiased, so try to select someone outside your organization — and definitely outside your pool of direct reports. Check in every month, and come to the meeting armed with ethical dilemmas you need help solving and examples of how you stuck to your values in the face of competing priorities.
As leaders, we’re the architects of trust, yet only 36% of American workers believe their employers have the integrity to do the right thing when faced with an ethical quandary. No one is asking you to be the paragon of virtue, but if you have your sights set on staying in management, you’ll need to hone a set of values you can hold yourself accountable to as your career progresses and your leadership duties grow more complex.