HR & Management

Too many managers are robotically following rules

6 min read

25 March 2014

New research published by CMI (the Chartered Management Institute) and MoralDNA™ warns that workplace cultures dominated by rules, bureaucracy and targets mean that managers are switching off their sense of care.

The report, Managers and their MoralDNA, follows City scandals over mis-sold debt, PPI and rate fixing, plus crises in the NHS and the police, damaging public trust and employee engagement alike. It finds that 74 per cent of managers are at risk of overlooking the impact of their decisions at work on others – 28 per cent more than among the general population.

The report shows that the general population can be divided almost equally into six different ethical character types – philosophers, judges, angels, teachers, enforcers and guardians – according to how far their approach to ethical matters is driven by their hearts, heads or compliance with rules. Analysis of managers’ morals revealed marked differences, with higher numbers for enforcers, judges and philosophers (74 per cent) and much smaller proportions of angels, teachers and guardians (25 per cent).

As a result, there are more people in management roles who may lack empathy when making decisions and fail to consider the impact of their choices on the wellbeing and interests of customers, colleagues or shareholders. Conversely, there are less than half as many managers in the angels and teachers categories – which have a stronger ethic of care – than among the general population.

The situation is exacerbated by an over-representation of enforcers. This ethical character type, which tends to remind everyone else about their duty to obey regulations, can be particularly guilty of blindly following rules and can lose sight of the principles behind their actions.

The research also shows managers’ moral mindsets change significantly as soon as they are in a working environment. Compared to their personal lives, they become four per cent more likely to blindly follow rules and five per cent less likely to consider the wellbeing of others when making decisions.

Ann Francke, Chief Executive of CMI, said: “Too many employers fall into the trap of relying on ever-more complicated layers of rules and regulations to say what their people can and can’t do. The result is that people act like robots at work, using the letter of the law as an excuse not to engage their hearts and heads when making decisions. We need to stop blindly following rules and start caring about the impact our actions.

“To be successful, organisations have to meet the needs of their customers, employees and stakeholders. If the values and behaviours of those managing and leading organisations are out of kilter with those groups, they won’t be run in a way that properly serves customers and stakeholders or gets the best out of employees. In short, they’re destined to fail.”

The new research demonstrates significant links between ethical behaviour and different aspects of our humanity, including age, religion, politics and gender: 

  • The older we get, the less robotic our decision-making becomes, both at home and at work – compliance drops 27 per cent between people’s late twenties and retirement age;
  • A belief in any religion makes a manager more likely to act ethically both at work and at home; 
  • Compliance is higher in managers with right-leaning political viewpoints than left-leaning; and
  • Female managers score five per cent higher in the ethic of care than their male counterparts.

Francke continues: “These findings are another reminder of the benefits of having real diversity in management teams. Everyone has different ethics and the risk of ‘group think’ is reduced if organisations involve people with different experiences and perspectives in making decisions.”

CMI is supporting managers with tips for using their hearts as well as heads when making decisions at work. CMI’s recommendations include:

Ask yourself the RIGHT questions to negotiate ethical quandaries:

  • What are the relevant rules?
  • Are we acting with Integrity?
  • Who is this good for?
  • Who could it harm?
  • Would we be happy if the truth was public – how open, honest and accountable are we being?
  • Step back. Create space for yourself to reflect on the ethical implications of decisions;
  • Stand up for what you believe in. Be authentic and be yourself. If you see something you do not agree with, speak up and challenge it; 
  • Be professional. Use your professional body’s standards of practice as a reference point if you’re unsure; and
  • Engage and empower employees. Give staff more autonomy and devolve responsibility to them. Where employees can make decisions for themselves they are far more likely to start thinking for themselves about the impact of their actions on others.

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