Superman once said: “There is a right and wrong in the universe and that distinction is not hard to make”.  The words of an idealist? – most definitely.

Within organisations, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ often become blurred. As my colleague Chris Legge argues in his article, the blurring of right and wrong is all good ‘gamesmanship’, a necessity to ensure organisations remain competitive in a market place where all organisations bend the rules to some degree or another.  Evidence suggests that many organisations will actually encourage rule breaking by employees, even outside of what society would consider ‘ethical’.  A recent report by the Institute of Leadership Management found that 9% of employees feel that they are actually encouraged to break the rules to the point of breaking the law during their careers. 1  And this is despite the risk of significant financial impact if the customer finds out about unethical practices…  Starbucks suffered its first drop in UK sales when it became public knowledge that they were being investigated for tax avoidance.

So how can you assess whether individuals in your organisation are behaving in the ‘right’ way?


Doing the Right Thing: a Matter of Perspective

The construct of ethical behaviour is of course a matter of perspective, influenced by social and organisation norms.  The ‘right thing’ from one person’s perspective, may not be ‘right’ from another’s.  This can make it particularly difficult for organisations that need to change their current ethical standards.  Despite these difficulties, there are organisations where the need to do the right thing and act in the interest of the greater good is a strategic imperative.  This can be due to either the type of work they do or because the potential for negative public image is too costly.  For example, organisations in the Health sector must ensure they go beyond the consideration of commercial benefits, to consider the ‘greater good’ and quite literally the lives of others.  The ethical standards in these organisations must be at a higher level of alignment to the social norms of what is considered ethical.  An HR specialist working in the financial sector, recently explained to me that the major difficulty which the sector faced, after the banking scandals hit, was a need for a wide overhaul in ethical culture and mind-set – not an easy task when behaviour has become ingrained for so long!


Organisations Need Superman !

So what can be done to implement a new ethical organisation world order?  How do you start to realign the organisational standards of ethics with the social standards?  Bringing the focus back to Superman, one way is to look at those you are recruiting and introduce a cadre of ‘Superman’ (or woman) leaders.  This type of leader remains socially ethical in their perceptions, has the internal morality to maintain their beliefs and is impenetrable to the negative influences of others.  In addition, they remain capable of adapting their beliefs and behaviours to understand when the rules no longer remain the ‘right thing’ to do.

The introduction of such individuals needs to be widespread into the key stakeholder roles within a business.  This may sound like ethical leadership, and this undoubtedly plays a part, but the key here is the continued ethical behaviour and the resistance to becoming embedded in the current ethical norms of an organisation. With this in mind, finding a ‘Superman’ needs to go beyond simply looking for an individual who is currently ethical, but also considers their personal drivers and resilience to withstand the potential detrimental influence of others in the future.  My colleague Paolo Moscuzza picks up on how a ‘toxic culture’ can affect leadership behaviour in his article.


Building New Ethical Standards

Changing ethical behaviours in an organisation is difficult.  There are many influencing factors that need to be considered, but the behaviour of those individuals in key roles of influence is a good place to start.  This is because employees will model behaviour of key leaders within a workforce and the perception of ethical behaviour in leaders has been linked to the increase of ethical behaviour of their direct reports.  Therefore introducing a Superman may prove instrumental in building a new ethical standard.

The introduction of a Superman needs to go beyond one person at the top of the organisation.  To save Superman from being over-powered by the current behaviours, there needs to be support of others with the same impenetrable mind-set and standards.  Ensuring that ‘bad apples’ do not remain in roles that have high levels of internal and external influence is particularly important, as this can prove particularly detrimental.



“Ensuring that ‘bad apples’ do not remain in roles that have high levels of internal and external influence is particularly important”



How do you find Superman?

The key to this question is to understand what actually creates ethical behaviour in individuals.

The ‘Person-Situation Interactionist’ model by Trevino 2, suggests that ethical behaviours are created through the combination of individual and situational aspects.  This model highlights the critical role that personal resilience and supporting ethical interventions play in ensuring the success of the introduction of Superman.

Let’s look at Person and Situation in turn:

Person:  Methods and tools for assessing personality for ethical behaviours and integrity are widespread.  Many organisations already use such tools in an attempt to predict integrity and high level of ethics in their new recruits.  These tools focus on self-report and predisposition to predict behaviour.  They are often underpinned by the five-factor model of personality, and base their predictions on specific aspects of personality which are positively associated with behaving ethically, such as; empathy; consciousness and humility.  Essentially they identify the extent to which an individual will consider the outcomes of their actions on others and society as looking for signs of a principled conscious.

Such tools can be highly reliable from a statistical perspective, but is that enough?  What makes a Superman better than any other employee?  After all, most of us accept that it is highly unlikely that employees will go into work with the intent to behave unethically or break the rules.  While the personality tools consider an individual at the present time, with their prior experiences and knowledge of the world guiding their behaviour, they fail to consider the new organisational world they will become exposed to.

Situation:  Factors within the organisation such as; culture, the type of work carried out and reward and recognition programmes will also guide the extent to which someone behaves ethically.  The personality tools focus on an individual’s ability to consider the outcomes of their actions, what impact their actions will have on others, and societies perception of them.  They show limited consideration of the external influences that will also influence behaviour.

As Trevino highlights, ethical behaviour is strongly influenced by external factors.  It is not enough to simply recognise the current temperament of a person or to consider their previous actions.  Instead, both of these aspects need to be taken into account with the addition of a deep understanding of the new environment they will experience and how they will interact with it.

A Superman will show a high level of internal resilience and bravery that will allow them to withstand the temptation to integrate themselves into the current ethical culture. They will remain committed to their internal drivers and their understanding of societies social norms, rather than succumbing to what is likely to be the easier option of integrating themselves to pacify the expectations of their new peers.

The ERCONIC™ interview technique is an enhanced profiling process which allows the internal and external aspects of Trevino’s model to be explored, in order to predict an individual’s potential for being a Superman.  Personal history, semi-structured interviews and personality profiling allows a deep rooted understanding of a person’s character strengths, what ignites drive and motivation in their past and present lives, resulting in the ability to effectively predict their behaviours in a new culture.  In this instance the emphasis would also include a deep understanding to the new culture and map the individual’s drivers and resilience to the requirements of a specific organisation.



“Employees will model behaviour of key leaders within a workforce and the perception of ethical behaviour in leaders has been linked to the increase of ethical behaviour of their direct reports.  Therefore introducing a Superman may prove instrumental in building a new ethical standard.”





Key considerations for finding a Superman:

1. An organisation needs to have a good understanding of their current ethical standards and a clear picture of what ethical behaviours they need for the future.  Cultural audits will give clarity in this area and provide valuable data when assessing for a Superman.

2. A structural review of the organisation to identify the key roles that require a Superman. It is not enough to simply introduce a Superman at the top. Their positive influence needs to be cascaded throughout the organisation.  Organisations need to identify which roles are able to produce the greatest influence and have high internal and external visibility.

3. Align the most relevant interventions to speed up the culture change and help save Superman.  Modelling of behaviour is a strong start point for increasing overall ethical behaviour in an organisation but why make their job more difficult than it has to be?  Support your Superman with appropriate reward and recognition initiatives and recruitment processes at all levels. Once the ethical standards of the organisation have begun to change, the assessment of individual for their current level of ethical behaviour will be more effective and should be used across all roles within the organisation.


1. “Added Values: the importance of Ethical Leadership” research by Institute of Leadership & Management and Business in the Community (2013)
2. Linda Klebe Trevino. “Ethical Decision Making in Organizations: A Person-Situation Interactionist Model The Academy of Management Review“. Vol. 11, No. 3 (Jul., 1986), pp. 601-617