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5 Powerful Ways to Influence Ethical Action

by Mark Pastin

What use is there in navigating an ethical course if you’re unable to influence the thoughts and actions of others? It’s one thing for you to know right from wrong, and quite another to convince others to act collectively on your knowledge. To put your ethics to work, you have to be able to influence others to do the right thing.

Ethics is not a warm, fuzzy feeling that you alone can savor. It’s a commitment to doing your best to ensure that ethical actions prevail. When you’re trying to convince others to follow an ethical path, you need to steer clear of the tools of trickery so often taught in courses on influence. Instead, you need to employ both effective and ethical persuasion to influence others to agree on an ethical course of action.

Use these powerful tools to influence others into taking ethical action:

1. Act first. Don’t wait for others to show that they are committed to doing the right thing before making your own commitment clear. One company for which I consult adopted a strict but much ignored policy prohibiting gifts from vendors. One day, the COO of the company received a package from a vendor that contained a gold-plaited St. Andrew’s putter built specifically for him. He wanted to keep it. Yet, he handed it to his administrative assistant with instructions to return the putter to the vendor along with a note about the company’s gift policy. News of his action moved through the company like wildfire, and the gift policy was suddenly real.

2. Appeal to the principles of others. When you’re trying to convince others to take an ethical course of action, they will often view you as trying to force your principles on them. But if you explain why you want to take the course of action in terms of their ethical principles, you start out from a position of respect: “I know you believe in giving everyone a fair chance, so can we agree…” There is often surprisingly little disagreement at the level of basic ethical principles, so reasoning from the principles of others may be fairly easy.

3. The truth will out. One startling thing about Volkswagen’s diesel emissions deception was that it ignored a basic fact about the current business environment: the truth will out. When people do something unethical, they often assume it will never be discovered. When you’re trying to influence someone to do the right thing, it’s helpful to ask what will happen when this becomes known, whether than if it becomes known. In today’s environment, anyone can blow the whistle on an unethical action, and you have every reason to believe that someone will. While this strategy may come across as scaring someone to do the right thing, it also helps others understand the consequences if they don’t do the right thing.

4. Make the consequences real. Unethical actions usually end up harming someone, but those who engaged in the action are often relatively isolated from those harmed. When GM employees failed to make an issue of the ignition switch problem, chances were they never imagined themselves at the side of the road with someone killed by this defect. When people choose to act unethically, they may rationalize their actions by imagining someone else will catch the issue before it becomes real. This makes it easier to overlook the consequences of what they’re doing–someone else should have caught the problem. To influence someone towards ethical action, move them out of their cog-in-the-wheel mindset and talk about the real consequences of their actions.

5. Own the issue. When trying to persuade someone to do the right thing, they often worry about having to “go it alone.” In discussing the issue, always ask what we are going to do, and make it clear that you will bear the risks of right action along with the individuals you’re trying to influence. No one wants to hear about doing the right thing from a spectator. Outline in specific terms what you’re willing to do to support right action, and this will make it easier for the people you seek to influence to do their part.

If you want your ethical beliefs to lead to ethical actions, it is important to learn to be a source of influence. Being a source of influence amplifies the effects of your ethical commitments.

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