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How to Build a Culture of Ethics


One of the most critical functions of a leader is to influence the team’s culture. With this in mind, it is essential that leaders in the construction industry build team cultures that are founded on ethics. Brené Brown, in her book “Dare to Lead” (2018), characterizes leaders as guardians. Brown uses this analogy to highlight the need for leaders to guard the space in which the team works. She holds that leaders must “be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and represented.” As construction leaders seek to build a culture, and specifically a culture founded on ethics, there are some essential facets to incorporate.

1. Individual Ethical Accountability

In “Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership” (2018), Craig Johnson notes the importance of fostering individual ethical accountability. This speaks to the prominence of individuals embracing the duty and responsibility of their contribution to the team. Further, this speaks to the critical nature of cooperation and willingness to work together. Teams with this type of accountability engage with each other, share information, persist through challenges and develop positive relationships with one another.

2. Responsible Leadership

Over the years, researchers highlight the importance of various leadership types and styles. However, an important leadership form for those seeking to cultivate a culture of ethics is responsible leadership. Johnson describes responsible leaders as those who “establish a ‘web of inclusion’ that connects with diverse constituencies,” bringing people together in an authentic manner. Leaders then become stewards, servants, coaches, architects, storytellers, change agents and citizens. Responsible leaders are a positive force in teams.

3. Clarity and CommunicationIn this culture of ethics, leaders have a unique role to emphasize the importance of clarity and communication across the team. Brown clings to a simple line of “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Leaders can emphasize this in so many different ways when building culture. In the book “Nonviolent Communication,” Dr. Marshall Rosenberg writes of a communication process that starts with identifying observations, identifying feelings, identifying needs and then making requests to enrich one’s life. This is one example of a process that allows leaders to emphasize clarity and communication in their teams.

4. Connection through Empathy

This type of culture embraces the need for connection and sees that empathy is the way in which to build that connection. Brown writes, “Empathy is first: I take the perspective of another person, meaning I become the listener and the student, not the knower. Second: I stay out of judgment. And third and fourth: I try to understand what emotion they’re articulating and communicate my understanding of that emotion.” Construction leaders greatly influence their team culture when modeling this type of behavior.

5. Living One’s Values

A fifth consideration for building a culture of ethics is the necessity of knowing one’s values, as well as actually living and practicing those values. Brown holds that “Living into our values means that we do more than profess our values, we practice them. We walk our talk—we are clear about what we believe and hold important, and we take care that our intentions, words, thoughts and behaviors align with those beliefs.”

Leaders play a critical role in a team as the key influencer of the created culture. As construction leaders seek to build a culture of ethics, keep in mind these essential facets: individual ethical accountability, responsible leadership, clarity and communication, connection through empathy and living one’s values.

Skidmore, Sarah. 2019. Reprinted from Construction Executive. A publication of Associated Builders and Contractors. Used with permission.


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