9 March 2011

A former State Services Commissioner repeatedly counselled that “we must not be afraid to talk about goodness” . He recognised that discussing ethical behaviour is something that embarrasses New Zealanders. However talking about goodness is a very important responsibility of leaders. Tone at the top sets the tone of an organisation. Leaders should always be encouraging a focus on “goodness”. The objective is not only to raise employees’ awareness of codes of conduct and the behaviour expected of staff, but also to shape the integrity leadership of managers.

The summary of the 2010 State Services Integrity Survey includes the observation that agency managers need to be comfortable talking about ethical issues. ” They must promote conversations about professionalism and, through their actions, make staff more confident that integrity matters. Agencies must address leadership and communication issues. Too many State servants have poor perceptions of their managers. Good leadership creates the integrity culture needed to strengthen public trust and to deliver the quality services New Zealanders expect. ”

What difference will more talk make?

Recent search has found that many honest people will cheat but if we are reminded of morality at the moment of temptation, we are “much more likely to be honest.” This quirk of human psychology has big implications for how to encourage integrity in the workplace. In the State Services setting it has particular application regarding things like the responsible use of information, managing conflicts of interest, truthfulness in dealing with Ministers and the public, and proper use of agency resources.

The Sunlight Foundation blog last week included an analysis of how to promote honesty.

Social influences have a powerful effect. For example, if you ask people the day before an election whether they intend to vote, the probability of their voting increases by 25%. Similarly, if you draw public attention to what many people are doing, you increase the odds that others will behave in the same way.

Research shows that standards improve if people must first sign a short ethics statement before starting a task. It is the constant reinforcement of goodness which has an effect. Having standards and promoting them is not enough. Managers in agencies need to model the standards and by frequently talking about them, ensure that integrity is explicit in the “way we do things around here”. These are part of the “6 trust elements” measured by the State Services Integrity Survey.