To boost ethical behavior, let your employees learn something new.

By Brett Beasley and Christopher Adkins

By providing opportunities opportunities for learning, you can help your workforce become future proof and more ethical at the same time.

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Satya Nadella is on a quest to change the culture of Microsoft. When he took over as CEO of the tech giant in 2014, Nadella decided that the key to his company’s future was to leave behind its "know-it-all" culture and instead embrace a "learn-it-all" culture.

Nadella is not alone. Corporate leaders across the world are scrambling to help their employees "upskill" (add additional skills to help them do their current job better) and "reskill" (learn a new set of skills to shift into a different job). This trend is sure to continue as companies struggle to adapt to new technologies and rapidly changing trends. In short, an insatiable appetite for learning has become an essential ingredient of business success.

Recent research on ethics suggests that there’s another benefit for companies that embrace a learn-it-all culture: Learning can help prevent unethical behavior.

Researchers at the University of Michigan wanted to find out how learning can affect what is known as hindrance stress. Hindrance stress is what we experience when we run up against red tape, organizational politics, and ambiguity at work that blocks our ability to grow, advance, and do our job well. Hindrance stress differs from challenge stress. We experience challenge stress when we have a large workload or new responsibilities. It is taxing, but it often has a silver lining; it calls forth extra effort and can lead to big payoffs.

Not so for hindrance stress. Using survey data from employees, the study's authors uncovered a link between hindrance stress and deviant behaviors at work. Workers who felt thwarted in their path of growth and achievement on the job were more likely to behave in ways violated the norms of the organization.

But it turned out that not every employee who experienced hindrance stress engaged in workplace deviance. It mattered what other activities the employee engaged in. The study's authors found that employees who had the ability to learn something new were much less likely to do something unethical—even when they experienced similar levels of stress to other employees. In other words, learning can break the link between hindrance stress and unethical behavior. Rather than getting worn down and acting out in unethical ways, employees who learned something new recharged their batteries and beat the effects of hindrance stress.


Put it in Practice

Here’s how to harness the power of learning to boost ethical behavior in your organization.

Don’t just relax. Learn!

The researchers were surprised to discover that learning was able to break the link between hindrance stress and unethical behavior, but relaxation was not. They put it this way: "more can be less—under times of stress, doing more (i.e., learning, and not relaxing) might actually be more beneficial for having less deviance in the workplace."

So if you’re feeling stressed, don’t just step out for a coffee break. Step up and learn something new. Take a few minutes to learn about a new technology, a new language, or a new methodology. Doing so will recharge your brain in ways that simply kicking back, relaxing, and taking time for leisure cannot. Rather than draining you and leaving you more stressed, it will build your resources and make you more resilient.

Set an example and share your learning.

It is common for leaders to say they do not have time to read or learn something new. And many even engage in one-upmanship about how exhausted and busy they are. As one recent article puts it, “having no life is the new aspirational lifestyle.”

All of these activities can send the wrong message to your employees. Instead, set an example by being a leader who loves to learn and talks openly about new ideas. Be like Bill Gates and foster a learning culture by sharing readings lists and favorite Ted Talks. It’s a simple way to show you take new ideas seriously and to point your followers toward great material.

Unleash your employees’ drive for learning.

Creating a learn-it-all culture is not about constantly force-feeding new information to your employees. It’s about unleashing their inner drive to learn. So you may not need to guide their process of learning directly. Instead, ask, “How do you want to grow?” and “What skills or abilities would help you be better at your job?”

You can then act as a coach by coming alongside your employees and supporting them with regular feedback as they develop a growth mindset.

No matter what type of organization you have, hindrance stress is most likely a factor that leads to disengaged, unethical employees. In fact, this type of stress is so common we’re likely to not pay much attention to it or to the hundreds of ways it harms our companies and the people in them every day. But your employees—especially Millennials—are demanding ways to learn, grow, and broaden their horizons at work. By providing these opportunities you can help your workforce become future proof and more ethical at the same time.


Further Reading

Zhang, C., Mayer, D. M., & Hwang, E. (2018). More is less: Learning but not relaxing buffers deviance under job stressors. Journal of Applied Psychology103(2), 123.

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