Create an Ethical Team: Define your Team’s Essence

By Chris Ihrig

The way you define your team influences the team’s culture. Do you consider ethical implications when you define your team? Does it matter?  What is the essence of your team? Does the peer pressure within your team push for honesty or dishonesty? What does it mean to be a member of your specific team? What are the rules of engagement?

Is the goal of the team to win?


Is the goal of the team to win ethically?

The difference between the two definitions may seem slight; one simple word is all that separates them. Can one word make much difference to the team’s decisions?

When the goal is to win, it can be interpreted as “win at any cost.” The headlines are full of teams who ignored ethical standards. When the essence of a team is defined along with the purpose, the ethical boundaries are visible.

It is not enough to have rules or laws, the definition of a team must include an agreement to be ethical if you want the team to keep ethics front and center when they make decisions.

An interesting article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Thick as Thieves: The Effects of Ethical Orientation and Psychological Safety on Unethical Team Behavior, found that teams where a lack of ethics was not punished increased the likelihood that team members would feel safe being unethical:

“The determining factor was psychological safety, which is the extent to which group members believe that they will not be punished for making suggestions that seem out of the box or risky. On teams that have a high level of psychological safety, unethical people feel free to suggest solutions that may compromise ethics, without fear that the group will chastise or look down upon them.”

You want your team to be able to think out of the box but you have to make sure they know what lines can be crossed and which ones are sacrosanct. Bringing ethics into the light of day with clear rules that reinforce good behavior can go a long way toward keeping your team out of the headlines for the wrong reasons.

High stakes goals are fertile ground for ethics violations. It seems that even Harvard professors of ethics can fail to take the right actions when the stakes are high enough. Defining your team’s mission as ethical is one of many steps you can take to ensure your team remains ethical.