By Amy Swenson …

The habits of an individual define their behavior; the habits of many define a culture. In the corporate environment, the individual behaviors of your guiding teams have the ability to drastically alter the culture of the entire workplace. When employees are faced with ethical dilemmas, it is the organizational culture that guides their decisions. So in any conversation on corporate risk mitigation, we need to at first have an understanding of the leadership behaviors in place that have a disproportionate effect on that culture.

These unconscious habits are not malicious. They are simply a part of the job.

By unconscious habits, I am not referencing blatant episodes of misconduct or disrespect, but the more subtle, often routine ways executives go about their daily business. These unconscious habits are not malicious. They are simply a part of the job. The rate at which executives are expected to operate to be successful requires them to rely on rapid decision making and a form of corporate muscle memory developed throughout a hard-fought career. For instance, in order to meet the demands of their team, board or shareholders, an executive might regularly overbook their calendar knowing that they will periodically have to cancel or reschedule meetings last minute as different projects take priority. This could also be cutting someone’s thought short in a meeting in order to get everyone back to their desks to deliver on the objective just discussed.

However, what is nothing more than efficient time-management techniques for a busy senior leader, can equate to messages of disinterest or even disrespect to affected employees. The intent of a senior leader’s actions may very well be in the employee’s best interest, but it is not intent that defines our workplace cultures, but the perception of our actions.

Consider the words of Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It is that feeling, whether of slight, disrespect or empowerment that employees will use to filter their following behavior and decision making. The tone at the top, and more specifically, the behavior at the top has a compounding ripple effect throughout the organization. What was at first a postponed meeting, then internalized at the employee level as lack of care & respect, may evolve into a fudged expense report or even an improper payment as it travels throughout the rank and file.

This means that corporate executives need to understand how they are personally being perceived for having character by their employees. In many cases this perception for character is quite different than what is intended. Ethics & Compliance officers and their teams can bring the additional check and balances executive staff need to see their character behaviors through the eyes of the employee population.