Super-enlightened self interest: Individual ethics and organisational success through coaching and mentoring

The financial crisis of the last few years has given us a lot to ponder in terms of ethical behaviour. Banks, big business and governments are increasingly held up for real and/or perceived wrongdoing. It is easy to be distracted by the scale of these situations from remembering that constructive behaviour is fundamentally an individual matter.

Those individuals who are called to account (the Paul Flowers and Fred Goodwins) often become metaphors for a rotten system; their big mistakes played out on a big stage having the effect of rendering our own misdemeanours inconsequential by comparison, or so we would like to think. If businesses are to behave ethically, though, addressing the deeply personal and day-to-day nature of ethical behaviour is essential.

This is why, in promoting internal coaching and mentoring, organisations can develop a culture that promotes active and on-going examination of personal behaviour and responsibility.

Often the concept of ethics is bound up in a binary understanding of morality: right and wrong. In reality, ethics is often less a question of getting it right than of acknowledging, and considering how to act appropriately, when we’ve got it wrong.

Typically, unethical behaviour stems not from a decision to pursue what is in our best interests but from an absence of clarity about (or a willingness to overlook) the consequences of our decisions – further fuelled by subsequent attempts to dig ourselves out of that particular hole! So, while an ethical stance encourages us to consider our impact on others more carefully, it does so by emphasising the need to assess the impact of our behaviour on ourselves. You might call it ‘super-enlightened self-interest’.

A focus on ethics is therefore requires us to:

  • Recognise the choices we have available, our motivations for making them, and their potential consequences;
  • Understand more clearly, and acknowledge, the choices we have made (and how to avoid making them in future); and,
  • Be aware of our own blind spots, and be prepared to expose ourselves to them.

All this requires individuals to develop and maintain awareness of their actions, and to be bold by having honest and challenging conversations with themselves (first) and with others. Good coaching and mentoring address these issues.

Internal coaching and mentoring raises particular ethical concerns. A common question when people talk about internal coaching is, “how do you maintain confidentiality and build trusting and open conversations between individuals within the same company?” One essential factor is the quality of training and support, and the extent to which coaches (and coachees) are encouraged to recognise the benefit (to themselves and to others) of maintaining trust and confidentiality and of developing mutually respectful relationships.

This is why providing a solid understanding of ethics is so important and good training programmes do this by delivering on-going support through a variety of means (e.g. reflective practice, supervision or peer learning activities). These provide individuals with a safe space in which to share experiences, to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of their practice, and to help them make better decisions next time.

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