Confucius talked about tone at the top

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 6:20AM

The Duke of Lu asked Confucius what he could do to get the support and obedience of his citizens.

Confucius replied that if you advance the upright and virtuous and set them on top of the crooked, you will gain everyone's support. But if you raise the crooked and set them on top of the upright and virtuous, no one will submit.

Confucius therefore advocates setting the right tone from the top. This is not by way of a mission statement on a faded plaque on the wall but an organizational culture with all the right ethical values embedded therein, values not merely espoused but practiced.

Hence the onus falls on the individual(s) leading the organization, whom the sage says should be people who do not preach what to practice until they themselves have practiced what they preach.

That's another way of describing the "honor code" model of management -- where an ethical culture is set in place, characterized by honorable values. Creating an ethical culture is a way to lay down the rules of the game. That way, others looking in, like spectators watching a game, can distinguish if it is a basketball or baseball game from the manner and rules by which the game is played.

The honor code works best when the cluster size is finite. An example is the limited number of students in a university community, where the sampling is uniform because students are selected based on academic performance. That ensures standardization.

The same goes for a basketball team where the cluster size is fixed and players are uniformly chosen because of their knowledge and skill. The smaller the cluster the easier to enforce uniformity in selection, which promotes a level playing field.

Extending this model to bigger organizations presents a challenge where the cluster size and selection criteria are ill defined. For instance, implementing effective anti-bribery practices in an organization that extends to hundreds or thousands of suppliers and vendors would be harder to enforce because of the large cluster size and lack of uniformity.

Another important factor in imposing tone from the top is the clear, recognized authority of the person or people who determine and implement the moral code. In a university, for instance, the administration or the student-run council is the authority for the honor code. In sports, the NBA imposes a code of ethics on each basketball team and every player. This accepted authority generally ensures compliance and discipline.

In a corporation, this function should be part of the duties of the man or woman in the corner office, or even of the board of directors. How effective they will be in setting the right tone depends on their moral authority -- if they preach what they have practiced -- and the sincerity of their effort to create and maintain an ethical culture.