A couple of days  ago I listened to Anthony Jenkins, CEO of Barclays. He was guest editor of Today,  the BBC’s daily current-affairs show. He seeks to mend the reputation of the London-based lender. “In my view it will take several years — probably five to 10,” he said.

It  may take a decade to rebuild trust in the bank after a series of scandals from interest-rate manipulation to selling customers insurance they didn’t need. “Until people start to perceive the change, Barclays will not begin rebuilding that trust,” he said.

The million-dollar question is how to proceed to rebuild this trust. What should Mr. Jenkins and his staff do during these 5 to 10 years?

If I may make a suggestion? Free of charge. That will make a banker listen, won’t it?

They should engage in a moral learning process that results in what one could qualify as ‘integrity branding’.  This may sound academic, but is very basic. Let me explain.

Mr. Jenkins, his staff and the rest of his employees just have to add one small  question to their professional vocabulary: “Is what we do morally correct?” And, and this is critical,  they should be very persistent  and unrelenting in asking this question.  Lets call it the ‘e-question’ (ethical question). They should ask the e-question during  formal meetings  and informal decision-making moments. When they are discussing HR issues and when they are making long-term, strategic choices. Even when they have to make snap decisions.

What do you think is the effect on organizational culture, if asking the e-question becomes part of everyday vocabulary and decision-making? 

I agree, in the beginning this  will be strange and awkward, especially in a context where the e-question has been considered as non-existent or irrelevant. At least, that is the picture I get when I try to imagine the culture in such a financial institution.

But, onwards and upwards! Ask the damned question!

But there is more to it. The quality and reputation of an organization rests on the quality of the ethical decisions of every individual working for that same organization. The people from Barclays should not only ask the e-question, they should inquire into the nature of the ‘e-answer’. “How do we know that our decision is morally correct?” They should think about their thinking. They should train their moral judgment.

I know, engaging in such an exercise slows things down,  can be difficult, and sometimes they will  feel lost in the moral dialogue.  I think it even can cost them money, at least short-term. But believe me, this is the only way. The reward is existential: a firm ethical foundation that will function as a moral compass. And by nurturing their moral capital, Barclays will slowly rebuild trust. This is the true meaning  of integrity. As a student of mine once wrote: ethical decision-making is about sound moral judgment grounded in the integrity of the professional.

I hope they can resist two traps. The first one is  the compliance trap’: an exclusive focus on a system based on rules and audits and control and obedience. It’s a trap because it is build on a gigantic illusion. With the words of T.S. Eliot: “It is impossible to design a system so good that no one needs to be good.”

Instead they should first of all focus on developing  the moral  thinking and judgment skills of every Barclays employee. Secondly, they should train their teams to talk about the ethical implications of their decisions and thirdly, they should structure the organization in such a way that it supports moral  thinking by creating a culture that not only admits ethical thinking, but promotes it. Asking the e-question should feel natural.

The second trap I like to call ‘the cultural program  trap’. It is based on the believe that “a cultural change program has to pour  do’s and don’ts into the heads of our people and they subsequently should work according these requirements.” This trap focuses on the idea that a small group of people, preferably managers,  should dictate  what the rest should do. This works with little children but not with adults. It results in cynicism, mental dismissal and conventional thinking and behavior. Instead of opting for this moralizing and paternalizing approach Barclays should look for ways to empower the independent and critical and selfreflective  thinking skills of their professionals and teams. And trust that they will do the right thing. This pitfall is ultimately based on the idea that people don’t know what is the right thing to do. This is not only disrespectfull, but how can you as an organization radiate trust if you don’t trust your own workforce?

I even believe that Barclays doesn’t need a sophisticated cultural change program. They need an ethical learning process. This  will make a cultural change program superfluous.

If Barclays wants their public to perceive them as a trustworthy organization, than they have to inject ethics into their organizational DNA. And this starts with taking the e-question seriously.