Honesty. Integrity. Sincerity. Respect.
On any given day, we’d be hard pressed to use any of those words in a conversation about national politics. The erosion of trust and ethics, however, is just as evident in our day-to-day interactions in the workplace, especially when employees and employers have radically divergent views on each other’s value to the core organization. In his new book, Interactive Ethics, author and consultant Thomas H. Schear examines how sociological, psychological, economic, political and other factors interact to lead to ethical and unethical outcomes.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: There’s no question that ethics is a hot topic these days, especially in corporate and public governance. How did you first become interested in this issue and, subsequently, become hooked enough to want to write a book about it?
A: The topic was mentioned in passing when I was in college in the 1970s. One of my first jobs was as an alcoholism counselor – a profession that was in its infancy – developing professional standards for credentialing (certification), then along with that came the establishment of a code of ethics, boards investigating breaches of the code, sanctions for verified violations and formal training in ethics. Occasionally I’d hear of a counselor violating ethical standards and their employer’s handling of the situation and so I began to sit up and take notice.
Q: How did your academic background and professional experience prepare you for the discipline of committing to a publishing project?
A: When in college I would knock out the term papers for a course in the first week or so, thus giving me free time for the rest of the semester. I rarely agonized over writing papers. There were client social histories to write, then – as a clinical supervisor/ program director – there were policy and procedure manuals. When I started my own business offering home-study, self-paced continuing education courses for counselors and therapists, there were tests to write along with documents to gain approval of various national and state organizations, writing the content of the catalog, two websites as well as tests and syllabi for courses I have offered through a couple universities online. I edited and updated a series of booklets written by a friend, Bob Hickle (now deceased), putting his five booklets under one cover, then making it available. It seems to be no end to writing for me.
Q: What was the inspiration behind Interactive Ethics?
A: When I attended the University of Iowa, doing some post graduate work, included in the packet for a course on ethics was one presenting the interactive model of ethics. It struck a chord with me I think because it showed that things are not so cut and dried’ specifically, that there is as much of a possibility of an unethical result as there is an ethical one. (I have since lost the original article and haven’t been able to find it online so in the book I ask if anyone knows of it to please let me know so I can give its authors due recognition.)
Q: How did you use or apply that source of inspiration to your life and your work?
A: I used the model as a way of thinking about ethics mostly in considering how its lessons presented the mine field of choices, the pressures and influences on me, coworkers and the organizations where I worked. As a clinical director, I taught it to staff as inservice and workshops; it then became a large part of college level ethics courses I taught. As time went on, I gave the model some greater depth and breadth by modifying it by adding concepts and recasting the model’s flow chart. When my modified model remained static for a couple years, I decided it was time to write the book.
Q: So what, exactly, does “interactive ethics” mean?
A: The model tracks the interaction of various individual and organizational, what the book refers to as “moderators” in five realms: first, their interaction within ourselves; second, your coworkers’ interaction in themselves; third, your employer’s internal interaction of moderators; fourth, your interact with coworkers; and finally your interact with management and the organization. So for instance: First you have your own perceptions of your job, of your career path and how your employer views and values you and what you do. Second, the people you work with have their own perceptions of these same things. Third, the organization gives its employees messages, more or less subtle, about how they view and value the work they are doing. Fourth, you interact with your coworkers with their perceptions and finally, you are interacting with the organization with all its messages about you and your work.
Q: There’s no shortage of books about ethics on today’s market. What do you feel distinguishes your particular slant?
A: I’ve never seen a book like mine. Other ethics books cover code of ethics, ethical principles, some step-by-step decision-making process and its applications to different situations, populations, etc. My book gives proper recognition to these in chapter two but it is descriptive not prescriptive. The bulk of it presents definitions of terms, lays out basic assumptions then picks apart the individual, social and organizational moderators, how they interact, influence, promote or impede decision-making. Really the book is not about ethics per se, it’s about people and organizations and how they come to ethical and unethical outcomes.
Q: Let’s say that a business owner or the manager of a non-profit organization wants to promote ethical outcomes from his/her decision making and policy choices. How would they go about using your book to accomplish that goal?
A: Understanding the way events unfold, the terms, the assumptions and using the inventories to gain understanding of your moderators and the organization’s moderators helps people see why they are getting the results they are. This is not intended to be done once and then be filed away. Rather, it should be brought out periodically repeated over again and again. The inventories provide you with scores so you can measure where you are and as you apply the book’s information, you can begin to measure changes over time. Not everything reveals itself at once.
Q: In a corporate hierarchy, where does the buck stop in terms of responsibility and accountability for ethical results?
A: While management is responsible for setting the tone, being the example and following through, if they don’t have a clear picture of where they are at both individually and as an organization, they are just spinning their wheels. Management is responsible for having that clarity. Properly used and understood, the book provides the means for getting it.
Q: Are there specific tools, concepts and inventories in the book that address some of the common ethical dilemmas in the modern world?
A: The inventories present the reader with a range indicating how much various statements “most sound like” themselves and, when it comes to the organization, which statements best describe it. For instance, in the Identification With Work inventory, one set of statements range from “I have no sense that I am part of a profession” at one end, to “I clearly recognize I am a professional” at the other. The reader has five choices. On the extremes one of the statements describes you almost all or all the time. Less extreme, perhaps one of the statements describes you much of the time and finally the middle ground where the either of the statements can describe you depending on circumstances, your mood, or whatever.
For the Individual Moderators, there are inventories designed to get at your sense of coherence, ego strength, locus of control, field dependence/independence, moral development, identification with work, with your job and the organization where you work. For the Organizational Moderators, the inventories are designed to get at its sense of coherence, normative structure, tolerance for risk, obedience for authority and several others. There is a scoring system for the inventories which help you to see where you are and to measure changes. Notice I said “changes,” not “improvement”.
The concept known as the Johari Window represents the major barrier to successfully completing the inventories and accomplishing what the book lays out. This concept is defined along its implications and ways to deal with them are described in the book. This is why it’s important to see this as a process, not an event. I encourage readers to not take the inventories in the book but to make photocopies using them each time you go through the materials again. Not everything reveals itself all at once or at the same time or in a way you might expect. It’s important to not be too hard on yourself, not be fearful or judgmental. This can help, over time, overcome the effects suggested by the Johari Window.
Q: In your view, what is the single biggest obstacle to the development – and sustainability – of an ethical relationship in either personal or business relationships?
A: One concept which plays a big role is Sense of Coherence. What’s meant is that people have a sense of how life holds together or not. We have a feel for how or if our lives, our social relationships and the world in general, makes sense and that you can rely on others to play their part. It’s largely a matter of trust, believing life makes sense or it doesn’t, it matters what you do or it doesn’t. Without trust – not just now but for the future – why develop ethical standards and sustainability is out of the question.
Q: Tell us about the coaching, counseling and mentoring services your company provides and how these interface with the concepts contained in your book?
A: In addition to the continuing education courses mention earlier I provide business and life coaching and counseling services online, via the phone and face-to-face. Sometimes I offer a course based on the book which includes a series of YouTube videos, assignments and as a coaching client I can help the participant apply the information in their work situation as part of an overall change process.
Q: How did you go about identifying where and how Interactive Ethics would be published?
Q: What are you doing insofar as marketing the book to your target audience?
A: Though my background is largely in counseling, the book is equally applicable to business, government, medicine, etc. but I haven’t really marketed it much lately except through the website.
Q: So what’s next on your plate?
A: Taking a different slant again, I am gathering informaton for a book on overcoming self-defeating/self-sabotaging behaviors.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?