The Importance of “Tone at the Middle”

Ethics: Tone from the MiddleIn yesterday’s blog entry, I mentioned that I was attending the Global Ethics Summit in New York. I was there in part because I had been asked to moderate a panel, the topic of which was “Tone from the Middle: Who, Why and How?” It’s a great topic. I’ve long said that there are two competing truisms with regard to creating an ethical culture within any company. One has to do with leadership, and the idea that ethics has to come from the very top of an organization. The other truism has to do with buy-in, and the fact that ethics cannot be imposed from the top down — you have to get buy-in from the folks on the front lines. But too seldom do we talk about the crucial middle layer, the layer of managers that takes orders, and other more subtle signals, from the C-suite, and passes them along. And whether they pass along a clear, urgent signal about ethics or a distorted or weak signal is a huge variable. That middle layer is a crucial conduit, but it is also a crucial source of ethical momentum if and when leadership from the top is lacking.

It’s worth noting that the audience at this event consisted mostly of corporate lawyers working in ethics-and-compliance. The questions I posed to the panel were designed with that audience in mind, but hopefully they are of broader interest. Here are a few of the questions I posed. I welcome your own answers and suggestions in the Comments section.

  • Many companies, especially large ones, use web-based tools as an efficient means of conducting ethics training. But such tools may not be ideal for conveying and ensuring the right “tone,” which seems to be something intangible. What concrete steps can a company with thousands of employees take to reach that crucial “middle” layer of the company and make sure that the tone there is right?
  • Why have so many firms struggled to reach the “middle”? Is it a lack of appreciation of the importance of the middle? A lack of understanding of how to influence that middle layer, or something else?
  • Assuming we can figure out how to influence the “tone at the middle,” the further challenge is to figure out what that tone should be. The short answer, of course, is “an ethical tone.” But what does that mean, more specifically, in practice? What kind of tone should we be looking to establish?
  • Having the right “tone at the middle” arguably involves two challenges: one is avoiding a negative tone — a culture of fear, a culture that is afraid to talk about ethics — and the other is promoting a positive tone — a culture in which ethics is talked about openly. Those are perhaps 2 sides of the same coin, and maybe the one has to be avoided before the other can be promoted. Which part of that is likely to be more challenging?
  • One of the problems with relying on tone at the top is that the top can be pretty unstable. The average tenure of a CEO these days is something like 3 or 4 years. Is the relative stability at the middle of an organization part of what makes the tone at the middle so important?
  • In my own blogging, teaching, and consulting, I sometimes meet resistance to the use of the word “ethics” (as opposed to “corporate citizenship” or “CSR” or “integrity,” for example) because for some people the word “ethics” immediately makes people think of wrongdoing. Is finding the right language to talk about “doing the right thing” a challenge?

2 comments so far

  1. Gregory Sadler on

    That is a great issue to raise. When it comes to ethics — whether in corporate settings or all the other myriad situations of ethical life — all too often we frame issues as if they are primarily social issues, to be decided from above and then the solution imposed downwards, or as if they are solely matters of individual agents to resolve.

    The middle ground — also composed of people who have to respond to above and below, who have their own tasks, their own desires, their own good or bad ethical formation and history to deal with — gets left out, treated as if it will take care of itself. That can very easily lead to a sort of “those people telling us about ethics have no idea what we actually have to do — we”ll get the real work done, and then they can talk about ethics, values, principles all they like” mentality. I actually see this take place in educational settings.

    I like these questions, and have answers for only a few. I suspect that — addressing the “two challenges” one — something that would be critical would be to follow the old adage of not allowing the best to become the enemy of the good (or for that matter, allowing the lack of the worst to mask the bad).

    People have to be enabled to learn from the inevitable ethical lapses and mistakes in ways that go beyond condemnation, sanctions, and setting an example (which just produces fear), but which also do not send the message that so long as one can claim it was a “learning experience”, whatever one does will be seen as all right.

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comment. I think your point about ethics not just being about questions for “individual agents to resolve” is absolutely right. And I think (and have blogged) that that’s a particularly important point to keep in mind when we’re talking about ethics for managers. Because even though ethics “for” managers is important (i.e., there are issues for individual managers to resolve) it’s also crucial to keep in mind that managers manage teams of people who themselves will face ethical challenges. So managers have an additional set of concerns with regard to how to encourage and empower the people they manage to make good ethical decisions.


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