Culture eats strategy for breakfast! This famous saying accredited to management guru Peter Drucker, has been used to emphasise the importance of culture for organisational success. What does this insight have to offer our understanding applied ethics?

When people think of ethics, concepts such as values or principles jump to mind. Ethics are those deeply held beliefs that we feel we should act upon and which define good and appropriate behaviour. Yet, when it comes to what people actually do, as opposed to what they think they should do, values and principles rarely predict behaviour. In fact, even when people endorse a value or principle, if it is not reinforced within their local cultures they will be more likely to follow what others do, rather than act on what they personal think or believe.

Years of research within the field of social psychology has now demonstrated that our behaviour is not only predicted by our own attitudes or beliefs but is also fundamentally predicted by our social environments. Two of the most famous social psychological studies – the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment – show that good people can be easily influenced to do things they would not otherwise dream of. Whether it be delivering lethal shocks to unsuspecting volunteers or becoming immersed in the role of a violent and aggressive prison guard, people frequently act against their own ethical standards when their social environment encourages them to do so.

When it comes to unethical behaviour, it is more about corrupting barrels than bad apples. Whether or not people know the right thing to do, their social environment will powerfully influence what they actually do. When it comes to building ethical cultures within organisations, too often leaders start by focusing on defining company values or communicating principled statements. This knowledge-based approach rarely works. Building an ethical culture is not only about communicating values, it is about enacting them and embedding them within an organisational culture.

How do you embed ethical values within corporate culture?

The key to embedding ethics within an organisation is behaviour. It is what people do which matters. This starts from the top – leaders need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk – yet, good behaviour needs to be embedded within all levels of an organisation. To create cultural change, self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking, and believing must be addressed. This is no easy feat.

One strategy is to focus on the ‘critical few’ – these are the key behaviours that can help to define a culture. Ensure that these are behaviours that people feel good about, so that you get emotional commitment and ‘buy in’.

The next step is to translate these behaviours into simple practical steps that people can take everyday. Also, to focus on informal influencers; those employees who are most likely to respond positively to these changes and to implement and spread them.

Culture can be a powerful emotional energiser, and a strong determinant of what people actually do. Understanding how to build ethics into your culture is a critical tool for organisational success and risk management.

If you are interested in creating an ethical culture in your workplace and developing ‘speak up’ capabilities across all staff, please contact or (see for more details)

Professor Brock Bastian


Professor Brock Bastian is an internationally acclaimed researcher, author, and speaker who has spent the last 15 years seeking to understand the psychology of ethical decision-making.

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