Important Culture-Building Actions for Government Leaders

Monday, August 25, 2014

Using "good leadership" alone will not be enough to create an ethical culture. It takes consistent, intentional, positive actions. Some of the actions that help government agencies build ethical cultures include setting clear expectations, helping people learn how to make ethical choices, and being willing to talk about ethical grey areas that are not covered by ethics rules and codes.

Actions for building an ethical culture

Here are some actions leaders can take to build an ethical culture in their agencies.

  • Hold people accountable for exhibiting respect and civility.
  • Lead based on high-level values (respect, care, service, sustainability)—not just following laws and regulations.
  • Have clear expectations for ethics and demonstrate how to meet them in daily actions and decisions.
  • Make ethics a regular part of decision making—not a special event or code.
  • Express your commitment to ethics in big and small decisions and actions.
  • Be willing to talk about "undiscussables" such as the ethical questions that people have but may be afraid to ask.
  • Help people learn how to make ethical decisions when they are dealing with multiple variables.

When we consider only one or two variables, or fail to consider ethics, we may oversimplify decision making and leave ourselves at risk. The recent article "How to Build a Strong Ethical Culture at Your Agency" in Government Executive provides a case study about how to balance profits, quality, speed and ethics in daily decision making. This is important because deciding based on price alone sometimes leads to compromising our ethics, whether we are aware of it at the time or not.


Starting from where we are


Government leaders cannot afford to think about agency ethics and trustworthiness as "side issues." The 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer found that global trust in government had fallen to an all-time low. This drop in trust damages relationships with constituents and communities and makes it more difficult to implement needed programs and services.

Proactive ethical culture-building actions create trust and boosts an agency's productivity and impact, but it won't happen by itself. It takes intentional and consistent effort over time.

Take the time to talk about ethical grey areas that people have been wondering about, and take action now to build an ethical culture. Your efforts will help prevent ethical problems, and you will be taking an important step in your ethical culture-building journey.

About the Author

Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO of Leading in Context LLC, a strategic leadership development consulting firm in Richmond, Virginia. Linda has taken on the mission of “clarifying what it means to lead ethically in a complex world” and her work is striking a chord with leaders across industries. Since its launch in 2009, her Leading in Context® Blog has attracted followers from 160 countries.  In January, 2013 she was named one of the 2013 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. Linda has over 25 years of leadership, training design, consulting, and organizational development experience. Her client list includes Fortune 500 companies, small to medium size businesses and professional practices, and non-profit organizations in a wide variety of industries. In addition to providing visioning retreats and leadership development, she publishes leadership learning tools through her website at Linda is former Senior Vice President and Training Division Manager at Central Fidelity Bank, a Virginia bank that was headquartered in Richmond. When she led the Central Fidelity Training Division, she and her team were awarded the National Training Director’s Forum Newsletter Award for Outstanding Performance in Training for Matching Training and Consulting Services to Business Imperatives. Linda was honored as an Outstanding Young Virginian by the Virginia Jaycees in recognition of her professional and volunteer contributions within Virginia communities. Linda holds a Master’s degree in Human Resource Development from George Washington University and a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and Linguistics from the University of Virginia. Selected Publications and Presentations Include: Interview by The Human Factor, a human resource publication in India about trends in ethical leadership. Interview appears in the January 2013 HR & Business Trends Issue. Presentation on The Future of Ethics and Leadership at the 2012 Richmond Society of Human Resource Management Strategic Leadership Conference Article “Leadership Ethics Training: Why is it So Hard to Get it Right?” published in ASTD’s Training and Development Magazine in 2009, and reprinted in 2010 in T&D’s Best of Leadership Development 2006-2009. In addition to consulting, blogging and publishing, Linda also teaches leadership as an Adjunct Assistant Professor for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies. 
Her book 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership redefines leadership at a higher level of complexity with the ethical values built in. She is an award-winning author and conference speaker and is frequently quoted in the media. Learn more at

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