The house that ethics built: The coaches role in keeping everyone safe

Lack of ethics = Decreased trust = Decreased ability to do business = Decreased ability to survive and thrive

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,  and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every  human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 

(Solzhenitsyn, 1973) – taken from Systemic Coaching by Peter Hawkins

Each year we step into what seems like a more polarised world.  We see the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the left and right get harder, and those picking the “wrong” camp, or failing to pick a camp vilified in press and social media.

What we are seeing is a lack of compassion, trust, and faith in each other’s basic humanity.

In war, we see blood spill in one direction, while arms money pours in another. 

In pandemic, we see lonely deaths and unmarked funerals, while global pharmaceutical companies grow in capital and civil liberties are handed over.

Online we see a gravitation to hate, either to grab popcorn or join the latest pile-on of name calling, while the social media platforms use this drama to fuel themselves on ‘engagement’ – our attention monetised, and the money again flows into feeding the darkest areas of our interests.

How did we get to this place?  

It seems that the rules of the game have changed somehow.  That it’s becoming impossible to trust any large profession or organisation, or even movement.  

In an age when it’s so easy to be manipulated, exploited or even weaponised as individuals, we need to know that something more powerful than money is the motivating force.  Clear ethics provides transparency as to what an organisation, profession or industry considers the ‘right thing’ even when it’s not immediately the most profitable thing.  When we lose trust that agencies and organisations are following their stated ethics, we lose trust that we are not being manipulated, exploited or used in the pursuit of profit.  

How can we work together in a peaceful and secure world when this is true?   This article was written as a joint effort between Gemma Honour and Simon Powers as an exploration of what role coaches have in helping their clients uphold their ethics – and in doing so create a world where trust, and indeed perhaps compassion and faith can be restored.

Short term gains vs.  Long term thinking

US Pharma and the Opioid crisis

One of the greatest examples of betrayal of trust occurred by the US pharmaceutical companies.  

Over the last 20 years the USA has been swept by an Opioid crisis that was fuelled by the massive over-prescription of opioid medications.  We now know that much of this was driven by the pharmaceutical industry players, such as Perdue changing the shape of medical ethics by reframing pain as ‘the fifth vital sign’ and making knowingly baseless claims that the opioids they were prescribing were not addictive, and even recommending doubling doses for “Breakthrough Pain” which – they acknowledged, could present with the same symptoms as opioid addiction.  

Worse still, the US pharmaceutical industry appears to have manipulated FDA controls creating a historic display of self-interest and its ability to overlook moral and ethical choices.

As a byproduct of betrayal, public trust in the pharmaceutical industry has been damaged, with significant numbers of people uneasy about vaccination.  The vaccine hesitant are labelled “cov-idiots”, and those following government advice are labelled “sheeple”.  

Although pharmaceutical companies and governments are held by codes of ethics, these were the same codes that were in play during the US Opioid crisis.  To the concerned and hesitant – what’s changed?  At some point in the past, companies made choices for short term gain, potentially at the expense of long term consequences.

Today the world is now being asked to mass vaccinate as a way of moving out of the Coronavirus pandemic whilst at the same time concerns are being raised about the trustworthiness of an industry that has dubious relationships with governments and has and will continue to profit immensely from this activity.

The concern isn’t necessarily around vaccination as a concept, but around nuances such as mandatory vaccination overriding freedom of choice, bodily autonomy and in some cases, freedom of expression.  

The ability to trust the companies producing the drugs, and their government regulators, has been eroded.  Yet at the same time, questioning this ability to trust has become taboo. People have become entrenched in their positions. 

To move forward, we need to get back to the basics of the subject, understand more about how and why ethical frameworks are created, and most importantly understand more about the factors that leave them at risk, so that in these instances, clear and dispassionate review can take place, and trust can be restored.

Coaches role in enabling ethical decision-making 

Most large social systems are pursuing objectives other than the ones they proclaim, and the ones they pursue are wrong. They try to do the wrong thing righter, and this makes what they do wronger. It is much better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right, because when errors are corrected, it makes doing the wrong thing wronger but the right thing righter.

Russel Ackoff

Ethical decision-making includes considering longer term impacts through a systemic lens. The starting place for problem solving is changing the mindset and underlying mental models that feed into the structures, patterns, and events that make up day to day corporate and political life.  

To move forward, we need to get back to the basics of the subject, understand more about how and why ethical frameworks are created, and most importantly understand more about the factors that leave them at risk, so that in these instances clear and dispassionate review can take place, and trust can be restored.

As a coach we have a role to play in helping organisations be more successful.  Prior to doing this we may want to take a step back and analyse what difference we make to the world, if we do create success for our clients.  For example, coaching in an industry such as Gambling or Tobacco is unlikely to cause positive benefit to the world. However careful and honest reflection is needed when considering helping a company work on a project that could be harm reducing in these same sectors.

How to make it easy to make the right choices

As coaches we are often invited to help at the stage of inception, where idea formation and the reason why is being defined. Vision and goal based coaching is an essential part of organisational life and these starting places become the strategies, and eventually operational realities that impact the world around us. Even if we are not part of the initial vision creation, we should always seek to understand the purpose or ‘the why’ for the organisation, otherwise how can we optimise for it?

Highlighting ethical considerations in the vision, OKRs, strategy, and operations are part of the coaches role. To understand what our role might be, it is worth considering why we have professional ethics in the first place.

Why do we have professional ethics?

In professions that confer power to individuals over others, most have developed a code of ethics by which to govern how members of that profession act.  These ethics are defined ways of behaving in situations that are specific and clear enough to see if they’ve been applied or not.

My observation from looking at a number of these codes of ethics is that they have 2 major functions:

  • To provide structures for protection, for the practitioner, client and profession.
  • To provide structures for growth and enhancement of reputation, status etc.

A visual summary of how this might look, I’ve illustrated below:

image illustrated by Gemma Honour

All the ethical frameworks that we reviewed seemed to provide 3 main areas or ‘pillars’ of protection, instilling safety for those within it.  

The first is protection of the professional (self), the protection of the client (including organisations) and finally the protection of the reputation of the profession itself.  

The three columns are interrelated and are not separate concerns.The protection of self and client also fall under the protection of the profession, as the profession needs to be established as safe to work within and safe to utilise.  

The profession also needs to be able to exist within the framework of society, and so where the profession has impacts outside of the first two pillars (self and organisation), ethical guidelines are put in place by independent regulatory bodies. 

The police force for example should be an independent regulatory body for crime that extends from the public to regulate the public.  E.g. in 1829 Sir Robert Peel set out the need for the police force to ‘secure and maintain public respect’ by garnering public support through the phrase ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’. 

How ethics are formed and developed

As part of Adventures With Agile’s Innovation and Leadership Mastery program we have been working to understand more about Ethics, both personal and professional and how these align with our professional values.

Simon Powers introduced the concept of how beliefs and values sit at the core of any ethical framework. Our values create our morality which then can be shaped into more concrete and measurable ethics.

Model created by AWA – Simon Powers

In summary, we can define as:

Values are simple to understand concepts that we believe that make our lives better (or worse in the negative)

E.g. Courage, Honesty

Morals are simple directives that are contextually based and are usually held by a wider group, system, or culture

E.g. Do not run away from your problems, Do not steal or lie

Ethics are heuristics that are often specific, clear, and measurable, and are usually related to a profession or formal conduct

E.g. You are required to report any breaches of regulatory affairs to your supervisor, You must not remove any items from company building unless given permission to do so.

Source: Course content from AWA Innovation and Leadership Mastery – Simon Powers

Although most people tend to apply values and morals within the personal space, most of the time ethical codes tend to exist within professions, or organisations – so that they can be comfortable that the people within those organisations are acting in ways that are based on the organisations values, over the values of the individual.

How to set up an environment to make the right choices

Using a multi-stakeholder contracting process that has systemic coaching at the heart of the discovery and decision-making process is essential when helping an organisational shift towards better ways of working.

A multi-stakeholder contract enables us to value and look after those people who are not in the room when decisions are being made and most importantly look after the wider issues such as the world’s eco-environment and the societies in which we do business. 

Encouraging a long-term and globally systemic view of how the organisation sits within the world, coaches can play a role in creating the mental models that individuals have within an organisation and how they fit with the wider picture.

Examples of framing and reframing might include:

  1. Visualising newspaper headlines of what the negative outcome of a decision might be
  2. Asking what your successor would make of your plan in 5-10 years time
  3. Asking the client to imagine the impact of their plans / strategy on their industry or the most vulnerable of society.

These then move the client from the first pillar (protection of self) into the second and third pillar (protection of organisation and industry) as they begin to see themselves as part of a wider systemic picture.

Rewards must be aligned to ethical decision-making

When vision and values contain these types of longer term and systemic views, recognition and rewards are given for decisions made with this view and context. Rewards can be given for following an ethical and systemic decision-making process even if the project was not a traditional success. 

We know that if the systemic approach is taken, statistically we are likely to succeed more times. So even when we do fail, if the process is followed, we are likely to win in the end.

Mental models and how they affect decision-making

The perception of our immediate needs or the concern that our needs won’t be met in the near future creates a state of urgency that changes our mental model. Systemically we know that our decision-making is based upon our current perception of the processes, relationships, and structures around us, and that those in turn rely on our current mental model.

In short, when we are stressed, we make different decisions than when we are not. This is also backed up neurologically with energy moving away from the thinking part of our brains and into fight and flight responses. 

Most of us will come to a point where we will choose to compromise our own moral codes or the ethical standards set by the professional bodies we belong to, if we feel our backs are up against the wall and we perceive our very survival under threat.

Image illustrated by Gemma Honour

Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start when determining what likely mental models are in place to enable decision-making.   Where the Ethical framework has been created from a viewpoint of protection (ensuring Safety and Physiological needs are met) the ethical framework can be relied on, up until the point where the individual perceives that either safety or physiological needs will not be met by adhering to the framework.  E.g.  The ethical framework does not support a person being sued for ‘ethical’ practice, or that by upholding the ethical framework individuals will be certain to lose out financially.

Here the ethical framework ‘bedrock’ or base layer, on which the ethical framework had been created, also reveals the point at which the ability to continue to use this decision making framework is most likely to become compromised.

The coaches role is to highlight conditions that impact ethical stability 

Where choices being made are ones that impact the individual’s or organisations sense of safety or security (either legal or financial) the coach can use this as a trigger to hold a longer conversation where the coach and client can reflect on whether this may cause individuals in the organisation to compromise their ethical beliefs and if so what, if any support or messaging can be offered to realign the conditions for ethical decision making.

Models for creating ethics

On occasion coaches may be engaged with an organisation who wish to expand on an existing ethical framework or to create their own. Using the mindset beliefs are a good starting block to ensure that we take complexity into account, we take people and how we treat them into account, and finally we make sure we review and build in an iterative feedback approach so that we are able to continuously improve.


Everyone is right but only partially

It’s important to remember when reviewing and using professional ethical frameworks and the decision making frameworks that use them, that these frameworks have been created by humans, based on their understanding of the world, their mindset and their core beliefs.  

Sometimes these things will fully align with a coach’s core beliefs, and other times perhaps they won’t. To make a difference in the world, we need to hold some core beliefs about what we want that difference to look like.  We can hold these beliefs firmly, while still being open to changing them where the evidence suggests that we may have been wrong.

Acknowledging that our own search for ‘right’ is indeed a search for security and certainty in an overwhelmingly complex world is the first step towards understanding the role that ethics might play for our clients.

This article is a product of the work created during some of the sessions of the Innovation and Leadership Mastery Program. If you would like to work with us on this and other topics, and collaborate on articles like this one, please join the Innovation and Leadership Mastery program. All drawings illustrated by Gemma.

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