In his Thought for the Day on 19th August Clifford Longley used the example of extra powers given to the police to fine inconsiderate drivers in order to explore three main systems of ethics in Western thought. “There is consequentialism, which in motoring terms means not causing injury or damage by having accidents; there is deontological ethics, which in this case means obeying the law whether it makes sense or not because that’s our moral duty; and there is virtue ethics, which puts the emphasis on acquiring the right habits and skills to be a good driver.”
One could use a similar type of thinking in considering performance or individuals in organisations. Many organisations focus on “the law”, in this case the rules about how things are done here. It is the moral duty of the individual to obey the rules of the organisation. But it’s worth thinking about the relationship between this and the other two ideas. What if obeying the rules causes harm? Let’s say the rules state reports must be in by the 21st of each month. How do I handle it if my overworked staff member submits a report after that date?
Then there is the sometimes false reassurance we get by obeying the rules. The rules state x so that’s what I’m doing. Is there, perhaps, a temptation to abdicate personal responsibility if you simply abide by the rules? Not to question what the rules are for and whether they offer the best course of action in a particular circumstance?
Continuing with the theme of responsibility, whose responsibility is it that I acquire the right habits and skills to do my job well? Clearly it’s helpful if the organisation provides the means for me to do it but is it not my responsibility to learn and put that learning into practice?
Rules are necessary to provide guidance (continuing the driving analogy, we can’t suddenly decide unilaterally that we’ll start driving on the right or there would be chaos!) but they have to be tempered with taking responsibility and exercising judgement and how do we learn that?