How can OD practitioners support ethical leadership?

By Caroline Wynn,
11 November 2021

As part of our Organisational Development (OD) series on ‘What next for leadership’ our first session asked: Does ethical leadership really matter?  Below you can access the session recording, the slides and our first blog to explore this topic, which feels particularly relevant for organisations and leaders at the moment.

In this blog Caroline Wynn, one of our speakers, shares further insights from the session.

Doing the right thing: why ethics matter

Our discussion – Doing the right thing: why ethics matter – highlighted one of the key aspects of encouraging ethical behaviour in your organisation.  You may associate rationality and logic with ethical behaviour and being an ethical leader.  Our discussion demonstrated that being ethical is very much about connecting with how you feel as well as what you are thinking. 

What is our current experience of ethical leadership?

We asked participants to comment on their experience of ethical behaviour in their organisations.  Some experiences were good.   ‘Keep things simple’, ‘talk things through and be open and honest about tackling ethical dilemmas’.  Some were not so good.  Concerns about inertia, worries about being ‘able to speak up’.  Some had experienced the ‘flagrant disregard’ for ethical standards, values, and codes of conduct.  Through our discussion, it emerged that leadership is crucial to encouraging ethical behaviour. 

Our first question generated an interesting response, with most attendees ‘usually’ applying the same ethical standards at work as they do at home.  Discussions surfaced the complexity and ambiguity in which leaders are trying to apply ethical practice.  Sometimes, ethical ‘moments that matter’ are reflected on and understood after they have taken place.  The challenge is how to turn what we value into day-to-day behaviour which results in an ethical culture.

What can you do as an OD Practitioner?

Stimulate a diverse, deeper dialogue 

Being an ethical leader means ‘doing well by doing good‘.  The practice of ethical leadership is extremely dynamic and must be centred on your current context and circumstances.  What was ethical yesterday may not be ethical tomorrow. Think about some of the attitudes that have changed in your lifetime.  Our awareness of racism, how we perceive equality, and gender identity are all topics that have changed dramatically even in the last five years.

OD practitioners need to focus on helping leaders to adopt a mindset that promotes ethical behaviour.  This requires helping them to think deeply, facilitating a diverse dialogue to discover and define ethical leadership in their situation, and continuously working to achieve the highest ethical standards.  You also need to measure the impact of their ethical leadership on themselves and their organisation.  This requires OD Practitioners to develop and hold a ‘container’ or safe space where these conversations can take place, facilitated by psychological safety and trust.

Consider ethical mentors 

Ethical mentoring is a fairly new term, but it’s likely to be one we are going to hear a lot more of. Most unethical behaviour is rarely because an individual or group of people set out to do wrong. Rather, it starts with small breaches which may go unnoticed or there is an unwillingness or inability to speak up or challenge.  It can also be because of becoming desensitised to the impact of certain decisions or behaviour.  Some of the examples of neglect or patient abuse in the health service have been found to be because of this lack of ethical sensitivity. 

Most adults are not ethically self-sufficient.  They look to peers and significant others for ethical guidance.  This is particularly true because ethical dilemmas often involve ambiguity. Ethical mentors focus on helping people to think through situations, to develop their ethical awareness, and to help them be better prepared to tackle situations where there is an ethical challenge.

Outward Focus 

One of the issues with helping people to recognise and act on ethical issues is awareness. Daniel Goleman summed it up well when he called for us all to have  “an inward focus, a focus on others and an outward focus” (Goleman, 2013 p52).  Most of us find it difficult to see different perspectives. As OD practitioners, however, we can help individuals and teams to reflect on any situation and generate a better understanding of it by looking at it from these three different positions:

  • Your own perspective – spend two or three minutes articulating what you think, feel, notice about the situation, don’t judge, just say it out loud
  • Now switch to the other person’s perspective (it can help to actually physically move to another position).  Spend a few minutes really trying to see the situation through their eyes, focus on them, genuinely aim to understand what it might feel like for them and what their intentions are
  • Thirdly become the ‘fly on the wall’ and adopt an objective, outward focus by considering what someone unconnected to the situation might think, feel, notice and how they might respond
  • Finally, return to your own perspective and examine how you might think or feel differently haven’t considered these other perspectives.

When you get stuck in meetings or are faced with a difficult dilemma, try using this approach to help you and others to move beyond the obvious, challenge your assumptions and generate new options.  You might recognise perceptual positions – a rather uncatchy title that’s part of the NLP toolkit

Some of the excellent ideas that came out of our discussions during the live session were:

  1. Cultivating a sense of hope and that it is worth trying to make a difference
  2. Explaining decisions in the context of the organisation’s purpose
  3. Listening and learning from perspectives that challenge assumptions
  4. Providing opportunities for teams to openly discuss difficult issues before they escalate
  5. Developing a leadership style that balances head, heart and hands and promotes trust and psychological safety

Resources and thoughts

If you’d like to watch the playback, we’ve included the recording below and we’ve also linked the accompanying slide deck. We would love you to leave your comments, questions or ideas for other topics or areas of practice in the comments. 

Caroline Wynn
Business Detectives Ltd

About the author

Caroline is an experienced coach and facilitator and an expert in leadership behaviour. She is passionate about helping leaders and their teams to do well by doing good. She is a creative thinker with an ability to challenge established patterns of behaviour in a constructive way. 

She has experience across the private, public and not for profit sectors, with organisations such as The British Council, Arriva, P&O, The International Baccalaureate, AXA, DAS and TLT. She has a degree in politics, an MBA, is a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) and is an Associate Member of the CIPD. She is qualified to use a range of psychometric tools. She is currently undertaking a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) at the University of the West of England (UWE) exploring the practice of ethical leadership.

Warm and empathetic, she is quickly able to build rapport and support individuals and teams to achieve their potential. Caroline has a proven track record of sensitively handling complex behavioural issues to deliver improved results. 


Next session in the series

The second event in our What’s next for leadership series focuses on change. 

How to lead change at pace with your people 
25 November from 17:00-18:30

The session introduces you to a revolutionary new model for leading change built on positive psychology, which aims to help your people welcome change and become resourceful and responsive during the process. Our speakers on the evening are Dave Harrison and Rebecca Stevens from Co-Creation.



Also in the What’s next for leadership series


What is ethical leadership and why does it matter?

Interest in ethical leadership has risen significantly in the last 20 years. Previously it might just have been about following rules and being true to your values. Nowadays, it can be a massive differentiator for investors, customers, employees, potential recruits and other stakeholders. In this article, Caroline Wynn explains what ethical leadership is and why it matters

Watch the playback

An event exploring the growing need to develop strong ethical leadership cultures in organisations and the role of OD in supporting that shift.

Includes practices you can use to set and deliver your organisation’s ethical goals.

Recorded 14 October 2021

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