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The Moral Compass and Decision-Making in Business

I am genuinely interested in the way in which people manage their moral compass in decision-making within not just a business environment but also within their own personal integrity.

I remember being invited to be a participant on a rather prestigious leadership programme a while back which had the working title, “The Moral Compact of Leadership.” I was struck by the fact that of the eight or so senior business leaders speaking to the participants, only one spoke directly to the title of the programme and one other referenced it. The others - worthy though they might have been - simply reflected pragmatically on their leadership practice.

Since that programme, it has struck me that there appears to be so little overt teaching and guidance shared in business schools and business literature that informs the leader’s moral compass. I wonder if we dance around and avoid the subject?

So how do you Manage your Moral Compass

It is beyond question that leadership is challenging responsibility we are all faced with, whether that be the way we make decisions and act on a personal level or the way we lead others. Whatever the scale and the context of our leading, we are taking bearings from our personal moral compass. So what do I mean by this?

One simple way of stripping down an understanding of morality or a way we make decisions or take actions is to think of two components:

Beliefs - by which we mean in practice, what we believe about the development and involvement of people and the way they behave

Ethics - by which we mean that sense of identity summed up in a sense of purpose and our vision and mission

In other words, in this understanding: beliefs are focused around people, whether just us as individuals or a whole community, organisation or even nation whilst ethics are focused on that specific action-centred sense of identity.

So imagine you are holding a compass in your hand right now. That compass represents your own moral decision-making as a leader. Can you think what beliefs are influencing the compass bearing of leadership you take. Can you think too about the ethics or sense of identity that influences your direction of travel. For it seems to me, that our moral compass of leadership is entirely dependent on our beliefs (about people) and our ethics (sense of identity). I hope you agree?

If I may, can I invite you to take a moment to consider how that moral compass is at work in your own leadership and may be to consider what influences you as you make your own (moral) decisions?

My Moral Compass in Practice

As leaders we don’t often take a step back to consider who we are and what influences us in the decisions we make, and still less the moral compass that may guide us. So can I invite you to do that now in three particular ways:

Personal “Hard Wiring” - Whatever words might be used to describe it, there is a basic moral system that is hard wired into humans. The same is true of other species of animal of course, although many would prefer not to think of a moral wiring in other species. Yet, whilst there are exceptions and not individual is the same, there is a basic moral hard wiring amongst people helping to discriminate between right and wrong.

Infused - The word infused is, I think really helpful when thinking about that moral awareness that is absorbed from the context in which we as leaders develop and in which we operate. So that basic hard wiring is developed and interpreted as we are infused with the wherewithal of managing our moral compass in practice.

Controlled - The laws, rules and conventions of our operating context provide the limits and boundaries for our moral compass in practice. These controls are external to us. We may want to press and push and maybe change these boundaries depending on the circumstances, but it becomes difficult to legitimately stray over them.

So then, internal to us is the hard wiring within us influencing moral choice and the frameworks that are infused within us and external to us are the rules, or the boundaries set for us. Classically we might say the choices we make - or the way we navigate using our moral compass - is based upon our conscience.

This may seem obvious stuff, but let me test this out with you.

Testing our Moral Compass

Imagine we are faced with a particular challenge, a difficult decision we have to make. We might think the decision is purely rational. We might think that it is “nothing personal” and that feelings/sentiment are not involved.

Look at that challenge again. Think of it in terms of the external pressures of the rules to be complied with or the instructions that might have been received. Now think of the challenge in terms of your own conscience, your infused awareness of what is right or wrong and your natural hardwiring.

Whatever we may think, as responsible leaders our Moral Compass needs to be checking and re-checking against external pressures and our conscience.

Within the work I am involved with, the Moral Compass is dependent on that balance between our beliefs and our ethics. It seems that we calibrate or measure the quality of our decision-making - our conscience - by our capacity to balance beliefs and ethics.

It could be that you are of a mind to say that your decision-making in your leadership is “just business” and that considerations of the Moral Compass are not so important. Maybe you will say, “I am paid to make decisions” in order to achieve this or that. Perhaps you will say, “I haven’t got time for this”. I don’t know, maybe all of these reasons for not thinking about your Moral Compass are reasonable. You will have to make your own decision about that, as a matter of conscience.

All I will say is this: whether we like it or not; whether we are aware of it or not, the elephant in the room is moral choice. Every leader - whether leading themselves or others - holds a moral compass by which to navigate their decisions. Speaking personally, as a leader I like to use the best tools at my disposal at any one time. I think one of the very best tools at the disposal of a leader is their moral compass. Like any tool, use requires practice.