The recent conviction of Conrad Black on fraud and obstruction of justice charges turned the spotlight once again on the topic of ethical behaviour, or lack thereof, in the corporate world. Black joins a long parade of disgraced former high-powered executives who have traded business suits for prison jumpsuits, including ex-WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers and Jeffrey Skilling, former head of Enron.
While such front-page fodder represents the ethics issue on its most sensational level, the fact is that questions around what represents right and wrong behaviour arise nearly every day for most CXOs. And we’re not just talking about financially related issues; ethical decisions have to be made on scales that are much more minute as well. The implications of such decisions can ultimately determine a firm’s identity and the degree to which it succeeds or fails.
For Professor Norman Ball of the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont., ethics really begins with the art of communication. The director of the school’s Centre for Society, Technology and Values believes that in order for all employees to treat each other with the kind of respect that will ensure success, they have to first understand what the people they are interacting with are saying and are concerned about. It’s a practice he always abides by, particularly when he is asked to speak at a conference.
“One of the things I always insist on when asked to speak is full conference registration. I want to be there so that I don’t fly in and get to the conference a half hour before,” says Ball, who has been with the university since 1989. “If people are going to believe my message I have to have them believing that I know who they are. I’ll have notes, but I will be going to sessions and learning and I put that in [my discussion] and as much as possible I try to relate that to what I’m saying. People really appreciate that, because we have so many incredibly rude keynote speakers.”
Ball points out that in today’s workplace, with the presence of all manner of electronic communication channels such as e-mail and instant messaging, workers are challenged like never before to maintain effective communication channels with peers.
“We might think we’re communicating because were firing stuff back and forth, but much of it is not reflective,” he says. “If we are talking face-to-face we can get all kinds of non-verbal cues. I can tell if you’re uneasy and you can tell the same. While IM clearly allows us to get messages back and forth, it doesn’t allow for deep meaning because it is essentially a broadcast technology. It also lulls us into thinking were doing something we’re not.”
Ball knows a thing or two about communication. He’s authored numerous books, his latest a history of the Canadian Niagara Power Company. When he instructs students, he makes a point of emphasizing the need for clear articulation when interacting with others, as it will be a prized possession regardless of where their degrees takes them.
In a course called IT and Society, for instance, Ball tries to get students to see the complexity of their work environments and the need to look at things carefully from many points of view. He believes that universities should be doing a better job of promoting this way of thinking.
“We know from research that poor communication skills — listening, reading, writing, speaking — are collectively the number one cause for early delay in career promotion,” says Ball. “No university is driven by that research. Another major cause we have from research is a lack of empathy and understanding of other people’s points of view. We don’t promote an understanding of what others can do and respect for them.”
It seems that Ball’s unique approach has opened the eyes of many of his students. “One wrote to me that they were ashamed that they were going to graduate that year because they had never had any courses that dealt with (helping) end users,” Ball says. “He told me he was going to try to learn more about them.”
Part of a pupil’s curriculum involves a work term, where they can get some hands-on experience in their chosen field. Ball urges them to view these as opportunities to put what communications skills they have learned in the classroom to use.
“The students have really good experiences from their work terms and I try to get them to reflect what went on in them. The theory is they learn all the good stuff on their work terms. Well, if you work for four months for a jerk of a boss, you learn how to be a jerk.”
Ball encourages an open-minded approach to learning, one which is inclusive of all people a student may come across in their career, whether they are an engineer or a manual labourer. All he has to do is relate some of his own experiences to prove that such an outlook pays off in the end.
He said, for instance, that one of the nicest compliments he received on his book about the Canadian Niagara Power Company came from one of the outfit’s labourers.
“I was in the their headquarters in Fort Erie, and a guy came up to me — he hadn’t shaved in a week, his pants and jacket hadn’t passed detergent since they were born — and he said to me, ‘Dr. Ball, I was reading your book and you really do understand how we work. You know that we only have one thing on our mind when the power is out: getting it back on for our friends.’
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s worked.”