Sharing common principles and values while working together to achieve organizational goals © Shutterstock

When norm-based leadership turns into ethical decision-making at the United Nations
How can leaders foster psychological safety and the use of values in a rules-based system?
1 Jun 2024

The article below is a brief exploration of the concept of ethical leadership, based on the insights from Mrs. Elia Yi Armstrong, former Director of the UN Ethics Office, and Mr. Helmut Buss, former Director of the UNHCR Ethics Office. 

I am most grateful for their valuable and thought-provoking contribution. By sharing their perspectives on norm-based leadership, ethical decision-making, and the promotion of an ethical culture within the United Nations, they show how ethical leadership is tied to the core values of the United Nations: inclusion, integrity, humility, and humanity. 

The mission to focus on ethical leadership within the United Nations (UN) emerged from several key initiatives.

In 2017, the United Nations System Leadership Framework was developed to establish a common leadership culture. The goal was to shift away from a top-down approach and to foster a more inclusive and accountable leadership across the organization.

Subsequently, the results of the 2021 Staff Engagement Survey stressed the importance of ethical leadership. In response, the Human Resources Management Service (HRMS) at the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG), committed to strengthening this critical area.

The launch of the new Values and Behaviours Framework by the UN Secretariat further focuses on ethical conduct. This framework highlights values such as integrity, accountability, and  respect for human rights.

The Legal Team of HRMS at UNOG recognizes the interplay between law and ethics. While law provides rules and principles through the set of norms and sanctions, maintaining social order, ethics brings in the values-based dimension. Ethics also evaluates whether a situation is right or wrong from a values-based standpoint.

When ethical values become part of the organizational DNA, and when we live by the UN values, law and ethics converge. Together, they contribute to a safe working environment where rules and regulations are backed up by common values-based principles. Such an environment empowers everyone to speak up, make ethically sound decisions, recognize ethical risks, and take appropriate action. It ensures a higher level of independence, reducing the risks of conflict of interest, promoting a more inclusive and harmonious workplace.

Leaders play a critical role as stewards of the organization’s most valuable resource: people. They create a psychologically safe workplace and promote personal and professional development of staff and contribute to effective ethical leadership.

I invite you to read these informative interviews on ethical leadership. They offer insights into the dynamics of effective leadership and encourage self-reflection, and are a valuable resource for anyone interested in this important aspect of organizational culture. 

Mr. Buss, reflecting on your work experience in the UNHCR Ethics office, what does norm-based leadership mean to you?

You can make a distinction between social norms (or behavior) and norms as rules. If we look at norms as an old set of rules, then I would say that this is the reference point for leaders. We tend to think social norms refer to what is unwritten, for example, in the UN system we talk about the Code of Conduct and ‘expected behavior.’ The formal norms would correspond to the set of rules that are reflected in our Rules and Regulations. 

Norm-based leadership means leadership built on UN values, ethical principles like fairness, honesty, kindness, transparency. I would also include the overall UN mission as it is related to human rights, people-oriented, humanity-centered, and so on.

Being people-centered helps us reconnect to the core mandate of the United Nations, which is first and foremost a human rights mandate focusing on people and putting them at the center. 

To give a complete overview, we should also consider how to connect with the goals, and what to do if the rules are not sufficient or give a direction that does not appear to be the best solution. In other words, what is beyond the rules.

Mrs. Armstrong, how is rule-based leadership different from ethical leadership and where does the UN stand on this? 

Ethical dilemmas make decision-making gut-wrenching, since a decision or action may create favorable outcomes for one group or individual at the expense of another group or individual. To simplify somewhat, the discipline of ethics has examined how to make decisions that are principled and consistent (the Kantian categorical imperative) versus decisions that maximize benefit for those affected (utilitarianism and consequentialism). In impossible situations, ethical decision-making is being able to exercise judgment, to be able to shift between the various modalities and goals of decision-making. Ethical leadership is about bringing others along in the process through outlining the issues, the organizational values and norms, the potential outcomes for the parties affected and the short-term and long-term impact on the organization.

Ethical leadership involves leaders at all levels setting an example of upholding the highest ethical standards of their organizations in discharging the duties entrusted to them by the public. While the work of UN organizations shows the benefits of multilateralism, it is hard work to maintain public trust in the face of skepticism of public organizations, exacerbated by misinformation and disinformation. 

Mrs. Armstrong and Mr. Buss: ethical learning does not happen automatically, so what can leaders do to promote an ethical culture? 

E.A.: In the new UN Values and Behaviours Framework, we have introduced humility. It is fascinating that the focus groups of UN staff have identified humility as an organizational value and discussions revealed so many differing cultural aspects. I think additional exploration of what humility means in UN work and its interface with integrity, inclusion and humanity, may assist both the UN as an organization and its staff to engage in values clarification and to practice ethical decision-making. 

H.B.: We often reflect on which piece of advice to share with leaders, what specific examples could illustrate a more ethical organization. Firstly, it is something you can learn and train yourself like you would train any other muscle, and I call that ‘the ethics gym.’ I think we need to look at this question from both an organizational and an individual level. We should be aware and acknowledge that the tone at the top, overall organizational culture and inclusive approaches, are giving a specific shape to an organization that also has the responsibility to promote this ethical approach to leadership.

E.A.: Ethical behavior and ethical decision-making involve both organizational and self-knowledge. It is about being familiar with our direct environment, it is about our comfort level with organizational values and rules, keeping in mind our own values, cultural and family norms and workplace practices that may diverge. When faced with pressure – social, political, economic, work-related – our values and norms are stress-tested, because most of the time we make decisions in a split second.

H.B.: We need to be conscious that guidance is available, and it can be learned. A model ethical decision-making process through which we can check where we stand on the ethical line is to ask ourselves questions such as: ‘Do I need to ask for help?’ Even if the decision is not perfect, it will be ethically-evaluated.

Often the term ‘ethical blindness’ is used. What does this mean? What factors within an organization lead ‘good people’ to behave unethically? 

H.B.: There is an interesting concept that I came across: the boiling frog syndrome. Some may know about it as it is based on an urban legend describing the reaction of a frog when put in hot water. If it is being put in lukewarm water, it gets slowly boiled alive as it gets used to the heat. On the contrary, if the frog is put into boiling water, it will jump out and save itself. We tend to settle in our regular environment, our everyday life becomes normal, to the point we are not attentive anymore. Most of us become so comfortable and used to their current situation – the lukewarm water – that we don’t even recognize a threat or a risk rising we need to escape from – the gradually increasing heat.

The main takeaway from this analogy is an invitation to be continuously alert in terms of ethical behavior, including towards potential conflict of interest situations. Both research and behavioral science demonstrate that most people want to be ethical. The challenge comes when circumstances arise where people feel, often unconsciously, pressured to deviate from ethical behavior.

Research demonstrates that people do not choose to do wrong but rather interpret the situation in a way that will allow them to feel that their behavior is ethically correct. As a result, a behavior that would clearly be considered unethical by an outsider becomes acceptable to those involved. The message is again to be attentive to context as a colleague, a leader, or a manager and anticipate where context will mislead colleagues and impede their ability for ethical behavior and decision-making.

Mrs. Armstrong, contemplating one’s actions can be an uncomfortable process and therefore can only take place when people are not afraid to speak up and seek help. How crucial is it for leaders to create ‘psychological safety’?

Psychological safety is critical to enabling staff and non-staff personnel to draw boundaries, engage in constructive dissent and report wrongdoing – in other words to ‘speak up’ and foster an ethical workplace. Some members of the Ethics Panel of the UN, such as the UNFPA Ethics Office, have done some work on how to achieve the ‘psychological safety ecology’ considering several factors: country context (attitudes, beliefs, values, norms and safety); organizational (systems, processes, culture, justice outcomes); leadership and team (accountability and culture); and individual (intrinsic motivation and capacity). The role of leaders who ensure accountability, who lead by example and promote a culture of valuing ethical behavior, is essential in creating psychological safety in their workplace. 

* Bettina Gerber is Chief of the Human Resources Legal Unit, Human Resources Management Service at UNOG. Special thanks to Naïs Miele for assisting with this article.
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