Change, Ethics, Trust & Timing for your Talent Management Decisions

We cycle through phases of conflicting decisions about administration in our government.  News feeds, during these conflicts, enter hyper-drive.   Yet the challenges ahead in organizations are layers down from what we hear and read on the global news scale, yet a common message thread is decision-making having to do with:

  • taking risks (some that are uninformed needed data and perspective),
  • developing and supporting leaders at all levels, and
  • creating and implementing ethical standards, and
  • more recently) TIMING.
Trust: Photo by notsogoodphotography

Trust: Photo by notsogoodphotography

(Note: This post was updated in 2013)

You can see this in the blogosphere, in other social media (FaceBook, LinkedIn, twitter, YouTube,, etc.) , in the news, and in current office conversation.  A talent management post from one of my executive coach colleagues in Ann Arbor features what’s happening with Talent Management now:

…[R]esearch, entitled “The State of Talent Management: Today’s Challenges, Tomorrow’s Opportunities” included input from 700 senior-level talent leaders across a wide spectrum of companies. 

Among the findings:

  • Only 7 percent of organizations consistently hold managers accountable for developing their direct reports through performance management processes. 


  •  Just 17 percent of respondents indicate their workforce strategy is consistently aligned with their business strategy across the organization.


  • Only 10 percent of companies consistently measure the effectiveness of talent management programs.

This is from a study by Hewitt Associates and the Human Capital InstituteHowever, very few of the companies cited are executing the strategy successfully.  In short, plans on paper don’t translate to reality in the workplace regarding retention and recruiting.  

As for the topic of ethics, one of my most popular mini-blog posts cites TIMING (excerpted below) as the critical factor in managing ethics, in the complexity of what gets our attention and what does not.  

Add to that the problems with decision fatigue:  judges tend make decisions differently later in the day with very similar data, and our self-control weakens when we use it and is restored when we rest it, also called “ego depletion.


Apple & Ethics, Photo credit: Beshef

Apple & Ethics, Photo credit: Beshef

Key nuggets:

  • It’s the stories of values-in-action (or lack of action) that make the difference.  Stories about actions have vastly more traction than mission, vision & value words stamped on a coffee mug.  The stories bring words to life and can help counter decision problems, along with a little rest, a brief walk outdoors,  and some perspective-taking.
  • Another long time consulting colleague, who has based his 30+ year practice solidly on values, often says said that it’s the hire & fire examples, the boundary setting stories based on values that prove which company values, AND leadership values, are real and which are lip service.  Is the talk with or without the walk?   

If a link is broken, the whole chain breaks.  

~ Yiddish proverb


Consider the too often cited Enron story.  Their touted ethics & values didn’t mean much, and ended up being a cascade failure.   

Consider the less cited, but action oriented example from the tainted Tylenol scare of 1982.  Johnson and Johnson made good on their values & promises, which were about trust and their company values.  
The company lost over $100 million as they bought back ALL unused Tylenol from retailers and consumers, regardless of whether the product came from the factories that were the source of the contamination or not.
Our shrink wrapped safety procedures today, can be directly traced to their leading, walk-the-talk example.
Leaders do have blind spots (Theory U) and make bad decisions, as we all do.  I wrote about the status quo and ethics two years ago citing a Harvard Business Review study, Why do good leaders make bad decisions?
From that study:
One reason major mistakes happen is self-interest. Most people don’t realize self-interest operates at a subconscious level. We’re not even aware of how self-interested we are. 
[Consider] the  John Thain bonus story. Is there anyone who believes that he is not a smart enough guy to figure out that taking or giving [large] bonuses [was not] a sensible thing to do?
 A Wall Street Journal summary of the article by Erin White also highlights three lessons including:
People need to recognize that we are biased in every single situation.
There’s no such thing as objectivity.  The first thing leaders should do to reduce their odds of making bad decisions is walk into an important decision situation saying,
“Ok, I know that we are potentially biased in a variety of ways. Let’s try to identify what those are.”

…we are biased in every single situation. There’s no such thing as objectivity. 

~ Erin White 
Keeping ethics and values alive and breathing is the challenge.  In my work, leaders must model values; they must walk the talk constantly, and especially when risk & temptations appear.  

I’ve conducted several “detective” projects that involved persistent rumors or stories involving black-listing, sexual harassment and simply helping staff understand how to use the grapevine and email properly in organizations, and what are the proper channels for emotional issues.
In these situations, preparing the system (all involved) and providing data at the right time, with the right preparation, with anticipation and interest, can make a big difference in growing an organizational culture to a healthy state when it is ailing.
The process may vary (appreciative inquiry, confidential interviews, focus groups, all hands meetings), yet the results are restoring trust in the ethics of leaders to do the right thing to keep the ship sailing in the right direction, without slowing down in a bog of misunderstandings or problems that demand attention and have been ignored too long, as in rumors that won’t die, or unaddressed sexual harassment.

Here’s an excerpt from a post by  on what it take to maintain ethics in an organization.  


© Marek -


Dan Ariely is a great author and his book Predictable Irrationality is a favorite. He recently wrote about an issue he dealt with in his classroom:

….my undergraduate students …promised that if they used their laptops, it would only be for course-related activities like taking notes.

However, as the semester drew on…they were Facebooking more and more.   …I became increasingly frustrated.”

…A couple of his students took it upon themselves to set up an experiment. They wrote two emails to the students in class (half would get one email, the other half would get the alternative).

In one of the emails, they supplied a link to the purported answers to the final exam. In the other email, they still supplied a link to it but, as a postscript note, they said that the university prohibited gaining any unfair advantage. The results?

A culture of unethical behavior doesn’t come and go quickly.  ~ Lance Haun
Using Google Analytics, the students tracked how many people from each group visited the website.
…without the honor code reminder, about 69 percent of the class accessed the website with the answers.
However, when the message included the reminder about the honor code, 41 percent accessed the website. As it turns out, students who were reminded of the honor code were significantly less likely to cheat. 

Combining the example from Ariely’s classroom and the code of ethics from Enron [60 pages long], I think we get a much clearer picture of what causes ethical breakdowns. It seems to be three parts:

  1. It must be clear …Ethics should be clear, …no wiggle room, a…no excuse why a person couldn’t read and clearly understand it in a few minutes.
  2. There must be reminders — …When faced with major decisions, a reminder about the code of ethics can be imperative to preventing [lapses by those tempted.]
  3. Look out for culture creep — …Ariely’s class turned into a place where ethical decisions were unclear   …. A culture of unethical behavior doesn’t come and go quickly.

…the third one is the most difficult. 


It’s the day to day decisions, moments of truth and clarity that demonstrate just how much stated value & ethics have really been taken to heart.  These moments are modeled by leaders and make all the difference.  Institutional memory is long.

 It’s the day to day decisions, the moments of clarity of whether stated value & ethics have really been taken to heart, most often modeled by leaders, that make all the difference.    ~ Yiddish proverb


Leaders are the ones who set the tone.  They can also easily miss things in the complexity of the organizational system.
Enron, Johnson and Johnson, and the classroom cheating examples are three of the sample stories that provide a good range of how challenging / rewarding it is to walk to talk of ethics in leadership.
Before you make any decision, consider its effect on the next seven generations. ~ Hopi proverb


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