Take off

How ethics helped 
a global industry fly

  • A crisis in aviation triggered a solution
  • Something grounded in timeless wisdom
  • Transferable across all sectors
Good Ethics panel


Has your industry got an ‘ethical compass’?

This autumn of 2014 has seen a number of different scandals resulting from organisations somehow losing their direction which have resulted in the ruined and lost lives. These range from the fatal problems with car ignitions at General Motors which have led to a huge recall of cars, to the child abuse scandal in Rotherham and other towns and cities in northern England. At first sight it might appear they have little in common.

“jargon and managerialism drained the human meaning out of process”

Infact, these scandals all stem from the same thing – a loss of the proverbial ‘ethical compass’ and as a consequence diverse organisations have lost their way. Good Works aims to highlight how this happens, the common causes and above all, the potential solutions which begin with us, as professionals and decision makers in every walk of life.

These ‘good solutions’ are easier to see if we understand that the problems are not about any particular technology or sector. Underpinning the symptoms of unethical behaviour there is essentially a universal problem to do with human nature. The universal solution is to organise our affairs so that we do not put ‘good people’ into situations where we can predict they are likely to make ‘bad choices’. The most extreme example of this is summed up in a well known proverb – ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’. So what were these common causes?

Try these phrases for size…

“jargon and managerialism drained
the human meaning out of process”

“no one was checking anything was working”

“if an issue belongs to 35 people in a room who really owns it? Nobody.”

“punished for speaking the truth to power”.

Regardless of where we work we can all relate to these phrases either from direct or indirect experience. Our proximity demonstrates that we are all part of the problem and the solution.

A BBC broadcast of a remarkable innovation

Infact these are quotes from one of the most remarkable broadcasts on ethics that we have come across since the launch of Good Works in January 2012.This was a 30 minute BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast last October (click here for the podcast).

The presenter is the highly respected business commentator Margaret Heffernan who is also the author of the influential book ‘Wilful Blindness’ (i.e. allowing people to make bad choices) and this documentary is like a sequel. She brings together in one global success story many of the different dimensions of applied ethics such as psychology, economics and business that are explored in more detail on this website and those of our partners. 

Margaret Heffernan explains how it is possible to organise our affairs so that the twin imperatives of the common good and human dignity can flourish even in a hard nosed activity such as the aviation industry. In her narration of this documentary she explains that in any organisation the entire workforce is the best early warning system but they need to feel safe to speak up and in general they don’t.

“people need to feel safe to speak up and in general they don’t.”

But Margaret Heffernan shows how the aviation industry has organised itself so people can speak up. It has done this by going against the trend of putting process ahead of outcomes. As is often the case in industry this radical choice was driven by a crisis. The industry experts tasked with finding a solution realised it had to learn from its mistakes which had caused aircraft accidents, cost lives and threatened their industry. And learning from those mistakes meant changing the culture and then ensuring new systems were fit not just for profit but for a new higher sense of purpose – public safety.

Something new grounded in timeless wisdom

These safety experts understood what Aristotle first put to paper over two hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ and that is the reality that good ethics are not events but habits.

Behind every label on charts and tables are human lives just like theirs

So their starting point was a concept they named ‘Just Culture’ because they understood that their change programme needed to be grounded in trust and good will. Their premise was that the life of each air passenger or crew was just as important as their own. Behind every label on every chart and table was indeed a human life worth the same as theirs. Otherwise their noble endeavour risked degenerating into a tick-box exercise. In other words they started with what is essentially human. Their focus was the safety of their fellow human beings and everything else had to be subordinated to that. And it is a prerogative that is now shared across the whole industry – airlines, manufacturers and suppliers. To the extent that companies that compete with each other are working collaboratively and proud of it. Good works will explore this enlightened plurality of thought at its next Buffet Talk in partnership with the Ethos Centre at Cass Business School.

“We have changed…safety officers have direct access to CEOs”

Across this website you will find many more examples of ‘good solutions’ and that includes the ‘Blueprint’ or framework of principles that our ‘Good ethics’ are based on, principles which have been adopted by leading corporations like Unilever. By working together and sharing ideas we will help more success stories like ‘Just Culture’ achieve lift off. Take confidence and courage from the knowledge that ‘there is an alternative’ and spread the word.


Good Solutions copy

Girl panel

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