Complexity Squashes Ethics – Fight Back with Simplicity

We’ve made ethics, compliance, and daily behavioral standards too complex. By trying to convey too much, we accomplish too little. We need to simplify messages, repeat them to make them memorable, and cut through the clutter of information that confuses rather than clarifies our objectives. That’s my simple message; the rest of what follows is “proof.”
We are all flooded with information, more than any generation in history. We have e-mails flying into our multiple mailboxes while voicemails wait in our desk, cell, and home phones. We have to check them all daily to avoid a deluge of piled-up data. We can find anything we want and way more on the Internet. Then there are meetings and conferences and once in a while hard copy documents to review. Behavioral economists will tell you that too many choices make it harder, not easier, to make reasoned decisions. The same is true with information as it applies to ethics and related issues. Give people too much information, present them with too many topics, lay out too many matrices setting behavioral standards and rules, and ultimately it all gets lost. People will think, “This is too much to absorb on top of my job. I’ve got other things to worry about.” The real message: “I’m too busy to think.” Require your employees to click through a mandatory series of online questions, and they will – while daydreaming about other more interesting stuff or going through all the communications piling up while they’re supposed to be learning. You’ll have a record of completion; but without a few clear, consistent messages driving and reinforcing the event, that’s about all you’ll have.
So while we’ve given people more information on ethics and the law than ever, scandals keep erupting. In scope and sheer brazenness, they’ll match the worst of any era. Just think of what we’ve seen in the last year in Congress, sports, financial services, and other businesses.
How do we solve this information overflow and spider’s web of communication? Attack the complex with simplicity. Communicate simple message. The most important ones are the following:

  • Know our general standards; they’re important, not fluff.
  • Let us know if you find out about issues or don’t know what to do.
  • We won’t tolerate lying and fabricating information.
  • We have and will act fairly. We don’t “shoot” our messengers. We welcome their issues.

Repeat the above over and over – not just via courses or bulletins but in regular conversations.
A client recently told me that they teach one of our programs – the exact same program – over and over again, and it works. They said it’s changed their culture. When I thought about this, I was at first surprised; then I realized its repetition of clear, consistent messages worked. Earlier this week, I met a general counsel and executive Vice President at a well-known, prestigious retailer. I asked them how they manage ethics and related issues. They said, “It’s sort of a back of the envelope kind of thing. Our CEO talks about it, we all talk about it, we send out quizzes, and we do training; we’re always communicating.” They said more and more people bring them issues that they can help resolve. I told them they have it right. Simplicity and repetition from leaders trump complex information assaults and mazes of processes every time.

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