Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

3 Warning Signs of an Ethics Grievance

The path to a Bar grievance – or worse – often begins when someone you work with doesn’t speak up.

Maybe they’re too intimidated to voice their misgivings about your questionable conduct. Maybe they don’t appreciate the importance of ethics. Or perhaps they’ve grown so accustomed to misbehavior that all they do is shrug.

What’s happened is that a toxic cloud of collective numbness has descended upon your law practice, and the likely result is a Bar complaint, malpractice claim, or harassment allegation.

“Cultural numbness is where I have seen the most severe breakdowns in ethical leadership because it’s so hard to detect,” says clinical psychologist Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, who advises senior-level executives and leadership teams on ethics.

Wedell-Wedellsborg, author of the Battle Mind: Performing Under Pressure, says leaders run into trouble when they “fail to consult their moral compass while speeding ahead in a landscape full of tripwires and pitfalls.”

“The reality is that, for many leaders, there is no true straight-and-narrow path to follow,” she writes in this article for the Harvard Business Review. “You beat the path as you go. Therefore, ethical leadership relies a lot on your personal judgment. Leaders who have crossed a line never describe this as a clear choice on that path but as wandering down a muddy road, where there they lost track of what was right and wrong. In essence, their warning bells simply stopped ringing.”

Here are three red flags that you or someone on your team is on the road to an ethical lapse, according to Wedell-Wedellsborg:

Warning Sign #1: Omnipotence. “To the omnipotent leader, rules and norms are meant for everyone but them. Crossing a line feels less like a transgression and more like what they are owed. They feel they have the right to skip or redraw the lines…. Omnipotence is not all bad. Sometimes the rush you get from bold action is what’s required to make breakthroughs or real progress. But the higher you climb on the ladder, the more it can become a liability. This is especially true if fewer and fewer of the people around you are willing and able to keep you grounded. If no one tells you no, you have a problem…. The psychological counterweight to omnipotence is owning your flaws. It’s a mature capability to look in the mirror and recognize that you are not above it all. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, assume you have weaknesses and think about them regularly.”

Warning Sign #2: Cultural numbness. “No matter how principled you are, over time, the bearings of your moral compass will shift toward the culture of your organization or team. It usually starts subtly. Psychologically, you’re making a trade-off between fitting into the culture and staying true to what you value. At first, cultural numbness can take the shape of ironic distance or disillusioned resignation…. Over time, you stop noticing when offensive language becomes the norm or you start to behave in ways that you would never have expected to be part of your repertoire. Start looking out for signs of moral capture: those brief moments when you don’t recognize yourself and any other indications that you are subjecting your own personal agency to the deviant norms of the collective. Another regular gut-check you can use involves asking whether you would be comfortable telling a journalist or a judge about what’s going on.”

Warning Sign #3: Justified neglect. “The human mind is skilled at justifying minor incursions when there is a tangible reward at stake — and when the risk of getting caught is low. Many leaders have faced a choice between getting the reward or doing the right thing. The slippery slope starts right when you begin to rationalize actions and tell yourself and others, ‘This is an exceptional situation,’ or ‘We have to bend the rules a little to get things done here,’ or ‘We are here to make money, not to do charity.’ These initial slips cascade into more, which turn into habits you know are bad but which start to feel excusable and even acceptable, given the circumstances, and eventually, become part of your moral fabric.”

Takeaways: Surround yourself with people who dare to tell you the truth about your actions and decisions, even when it is unpleasant. Encourage an “obligation to dissent” among your core team. Avoid the slippery slope by staying on safe ground.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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