What guides your moral compass

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Most professionals when confronted with the question of personal ethics or values are quick to say that they are clear about what ethics is and what their values are. We even use phrases like ‘my values anchor me’ or ‘my values are my compass that guides me’. It sounds noble and is of course what it should be. However, many do not question the validity of their values and where those values come from.

We can stand so resolute on a principle that we completely miss the fact that there are flaws in the principle. Just because we call something a principle or a value, does not automatically make it right or just. For example, a man who has grown up in a staunch religious family where he was taught that the man is the head of the household and the leader of the family, may very easily see himself as the leader and take pride in taking an autocratic approach to family life. In the process he may lose sight of the fact that the principle he believes in diminishes the woman as inferior to him and that it in turn strips her of her dignity and part of her humanity. By diminishing the woman, an inevitable consequence may be that what she may have brought to the table gets lost in the process. It would then not be surprising if that man takes that belief system into the workplace and see female co-workers as inferior to him. It may not even be a conscious belief, but an underlying belief that he simply just never questioned.

There are a number of influencers that impact on our belief system which becomes our moral compass. These include, inter alia, culture, religion, family values, what you have been taught in school, professional codes of conduct or ethics, societal norms and standards, legislation etc. It is far more common for people to accept norms handed down by trusted institutions than to question them and only adopt them once they have interrogated them and decided for themselves why it is good for them to adopt the norm or standard. For example, as a child one of the things that I was taught is that it is wrong to steal. I accepted it as a rule by which I must abide. It was only later when I was bit older, and able to reason for myself, that I was able to understand that stealing from someone has implications for that person and that I should look at it through the empathy lens. In understanding that I would cause harm if a stole from someone, I can accept that not stealing is not just a necessary rule. Once one understands the implications of a particular action and then makes the decision to refrain from taking that action because you do not want to harm another human being, not stealing becomes a principle that you believe in and adopt. It is no longer just a rule that you follow because your parents spoon fed you the rule.

When I interview candidates for a job I like to test their moral compass by throwing questions at them that push them to think deeper about why they believe what they believe. I have often found that when you push hard enough many people stand on shaky ground. Over the years I have thus become convinced of this very important principle: You must test your believe system on which you base your moral compass. Make sure that you believe what you believe because you have tested the principle and you are satisfied that adopting the principle is right for you. That is what leaders do. They don’t just follow the herd. They know why they believe in what they purport to be the principles that form their moral compass.

One way of going about it is to make a list of all the principles and values that make up your moral compass and then to pause on each one of them and ask questions such as:

  • When did I start believing in this principle? Who influenced my belief in the principle?
  • Why do I believe in this principle? What makes me certain that it is right for me?
  • In applying this principle, is it possible that I may harm others or strip them from their dignity/humanity?
  • If a documentary was made on my life ten years from now, is it possible that I may be embarrassed about having believed in and lived by this principle?

In the process one needs to be aware of how our prejudices and biases could possibly impact on our belief system. They can very easily create blind spots that make it difficult for us to see the flaws in our principles. This is especially true when it is unconscious bias or when our biases create a cocoon of comfort when we are benefitting from privilege or being favoured in a particular context.   

It is also important to ask ourselves whether there are principles or values that should be on our list, but aren’t. Our blind spots may however make it difficult to see what is missing, which is why I am great proponent of actively seeking out the views of people who do not look and think like you.

At the time of writing this blog, there are two leaders who are great examples of how your belief system can come back to haunt you. The one is Michael Bloomberg who put his name in the hat for the USA presidential race and the other is the last president of the South African apartheid era. The former has experienced significant backlash for his past comments on minorities, women and transgender people. His responses to questions put to him regarding his past remarks reveal a belief system that has created much embarrassment for him.

Similarly F.W. de Klerk, a past president of South Africa, recently put his foot in his mouth by stating that apartheid was not a crime against humanity. A statement that earned him significant backlash, with many saying that he doesn’t see it as a crime against humanity because he does not regard black people as human. In both cases it is clear that these men have little empathy for the people they see as ‘the other’. These are significant blind spots that are unlikely to be pointed out to them by people who think like them. In order to find the blind spots, one needs to have the courage to ask ‘the other’ what they think about your values and principles. This is only possible when you are able to humble yourself and seek answers with an open mind.

If your moral compass points in the wrong direction, it is inevitable that you will end up in the wrong place

More to explore

Encouraging empathy in your organisation

The Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdowns around the globe has put a spotlight on the need for empathy. Many have been able to display great empathy, while others have been struggling. I suspect that those organisations that have typically been bottom line driven, would have found it a lot more difficult to deal with the levels of empathy required in dealing with employees who suddenly had to go into a mini diaspora, while dealing with the inevitable bereavement that accompanied the virus as it wreaked havoc.

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