Understanding ethical paradoxes helps communication leaders (re)build trust in leadership

by Anne Laajalahti & Maijastiina Rouhiainen-Neunhäuserer

Trustworthiness, honesty, integrity, transparency, autonomy, equality, respect, care, privacy. Are these ethical principles just buzzwords or guiding principles for today’s communication leaders? At a time of declining trust in leadership, the authors examine some of the ethical paradoxes that communication leaders regularly face and propose a framework for how to manage them more effectively in order to communicate ethically.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested leaders in unprecedented ways and highlighted the importance of ethics in business and leadership communication. In many companies, the volume of leadership communication has risen to new heights, with increased expectation for regular, timely and precise updates. Communication leaders are increasingly asked for advice on what to say and how to say it to employees, customers, investors, media representatives, key opinion leaders, regulators and the wider public. Due to the pandemic and the urgent need for companies to define a “new normal”, communication leaders have also had to find new ways to reach employees. As a result, communications during the pandemic have had to be both confident and transparent, even when there’s no quick solution in sight and not even experts can predict how the situation will evolve. At the same time, what leaders say and how they say it continues to be minutely scrutinized.

Communicating uncertainty in a reassuring and confident way is a good example of the ethical paradoxes faced by leaders and communicators. Do we accept that the future is unknowable and simply ‘wait and see’ how things will turn out – or do we attempt to define and communicate a future vision before we have all the facts?

Furthermore, the pandemic has occurred at a time of declining trust in leadership, demonstrated by the latest edition of Edelman Trust Barometer (2021). In today’s society, it is harder than ever to know what information and who can be trusted, as we see prominent leaders using disinformation as a strategic tool and the boundaries of respectful interaction regularly stretched to breaking point by social media. In spite of this, is it too much for the wider public and employees to expect their leaders to communicate truthfully, based on the latest research, data and facts?

As shown by the European Communication Monitor (2020), almost half of the surveyed communication professionals have experienced ethical challenges in their work and these challenges have increased compared in recent past years. Communication professionals also report large gaps in their competence when it comes to managing these new ethical demands. The key question is – How can we as communication leaders (re)build trust and manage the paradoxical expectations placed upon us?

For communication leaders trying to navigate a route out of the pandemic towards a “new normal”, it is essential that we use this opportunity to focus on rebuilding trust in leadership. We have a once-in-a-life opportunity to set a foundation for ethical leadership communication.


Ethical guidelines for communication leaders

Although it is too simplistic to come up with a list of do’s and don’ts, it may be helpful to start by considering some clear ethical ‘ground rules’ and guiding principles for leadership communication, which might include the following:

Integrity: Communication leaders must uphold strong moral principles when communicating and also advising other leaders in communication.

Equality and respect: Communication leaders should respect all opinions and support the right of free expression, while at the same time challenging any communication that might incite racism, xenophobia, discrimination or intolerance.

Trustworthiness and honesty: Communication leaders should never lie, nor accept spreading of lies. Communication leaders shall also counter disinformation activities and remind other leaders to communicate in a truthful way.

While these ethical guidelines are a good starting point, they are not sufficient in themselves. Communication leaders need to manage a constant balance of ethical paradoxes in managing communication which requires a higher level of communication competence.

The following table sets out these competences in terms of knowledge and understanding, skills and motivation/attitude (see also Spitzberg & Cupach 2011):

1. Knowledge and understanding of effective and appropriate communication

Communication leaders need knowledge and understanding of how to manage the contradictory expectations of their work and how this creates ethical challenges. They need to analyse and plan communication as well as understand what may result from various decisions when balancing between ethical paradoxes. This, in turn, requires knowledge and understanding of different communication processes, strategies and tactics.

2. Versatile communication skills that enable effective and appropriate behaviour

Building on their knowledge and understanding, communication leaders need skills in sensitively recognising and interpreting ethical paradoxes in communication and interaction, as well as how to balance constantly between them.


3. Motivation and attitude to communicate effectively and appropriately

Communication leaders need motivation, attitude and courage to respond to contradictory ethical expectations at work and to communicate in an ethical manner, despite challenges rising from ethical paradoxes. Many communication activities might be legally acceptable, but challenging from a moral point of view. Aiming to avoid mistakes and unethical communication is not sufficient. Communication leaders need to be motivated and willing to actively aim for and set higher standards for ethical communication.


Here is an example of how this works in practice. Most would agree that it is ethically correct to communicate in an open manner and that intentional hiding or holding back information is unethical. However, strategic information is often confidential to some extent and communication leaders face everyday situations where information cannot be openly shared with everyone.

Another example relates to certainty. While it is expected that communication leaders should share information in a confident manner, in some cases admitting uncertainty and not claiming to know everything is the more ethical approach.

Communication leaders need skills in observing and listening to interaction and responding to ethical paradoxes effectively and appropriately. These skills are needed, for example, when communication leaders prepare for sharing a strategic plan with employees, talk about organisational culture and values, provide business updates to works councils, present an investment plan in a board meeting, host an investor Q/A session, be interviewed by media, take part in an expert roundtable and, take a stand on societal issues such as diversity and inclusion or sustainability. When facing ethical paradoxes, communication leaders need competence to balance

  • how to communicate in a timely manner in a dynamic, ever-evolving environment
  • how secure and certain communication can be
  • who is involved and heard in decision making
  • whose interest do they represent and bring into conversation and in developing organisation’s narrative
  • how much can they control leadership communication as it emerges
  • how factual versus emotional leadership communication can be and
  • how much time do they spend on reflecting various viewpoints before making something public.


Some more key insights to communication competence

As well as developing their communication competence, i.e. knowledge, skills and motivation, communication leaders might benefit from understanding the following:

Balancing between ethical paradoxes is not a one-off event or campaign. Communicating ethically once is not sufficient. Instead, communication competence and ethics are fundamental elements of the communication leaders’ profession. In the end, it is not a question of doing good but being good.

Communication competence and ethics are always contextual. Communication leaders work within a certain context: the situation, culture and aim of communication will always affect how communication is interpreted as being ‘ethical’.

An individual’s communication competence does not fix problematic practices and structures. Improving the ethics of leadership communication and (re)building trust in leadership requires identifying the root cause of distrust – is the problem about individuals or organisational practices or structures? Having said that, a competent communication leader should have the capability to influence/impact the problematic practices and structures.

Anyone can develop in leadership communication.

Quick three-step model for communication leaders to improve their communication competence in ethical paradoxes

Ethical communication is not an innate skill. Although challenging, communication competence can be improved and awareness of ethical leadership communication can be increased. The following three-step model is one way to develop as a communication leader and improve one’s communication competence in ethical paradoxes.

  1. Identify: Observe, recognise and map ethical paradoxes you face in your work. List the contradictory expectations you identify that affect your ability to communicate ethically.
  2. Problematise: Analyse what kind of communication competence is needed to balance these contradictory ethical expectations. Ask yourself: what kind of communication knowledge, skills and motivation is required? Can I, as an individual communication leader, impact the situation, for example by improving my own competence, or should I advise other leaders to develop their competence, or the whole organisation to change communication structures and practices?
  3. Commit to change: Ethical paradoxes might sound vague and confusing but this concept can be your best friend. By embracing contradictory ethical expectations, you as a communication leader can make a difference by giving ethical guidance and leading by example. By committing to change, you can develop your communication competence in ethical leadership communication and help to (re)build trust in leadership.

A quick guide to research on ‘ethical paradoxes’ in communication

Ethics in leadership communication has attracted many researchers, developers and practitioners, and many studies highlight the importance of ethical leadership to the well-being and success of organisations. Based on previous studies, ethical leadership affects, for example, job satisfaction and motivation, employee commitment and engagement, interpersonal conflicts, organisational crises and both organisations’ financial and social performance. Additionally, positive outcomes of ethical leadership include trust in organisations. (See e.g., Laajalahti, 2018 for a review.)

Organisational communication and social interaction at work are full of contradictions, dialectics, paradoxes, polarities and tensions. What these concepts have in common is that they all try to capture the dynamic nature of communication and interaction. Communication is an ongoing interplay of opposing forces and contradictory expectations. However, these paradoxes are not problems to be solved or removed, or avoided, they are a fundamental dimension of communication and interaction.

Paradoxes in communication and interaction have been approached both on an organisational level (e.g. Putnam, Fairhurst, & Banghart, 2016) and a relational level of communication (e.g., Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). Research has focused on, for example, how to manage paradoxes such as collaboration–competition, certainty–uncertainty, clarity–strategic ambiguity, fixedness–flexibility and inclusiveness–exclusiveness.

In the context of leadership communication, research has demonstrated that paradoxes relate to how close or distanced leader-member relationship should be, how involving or leader-led communication should be and how secure and trustable leadership communication can be in an insecure and constantly evolving working environment (Rouhiainen-Neunhäuserer, 2009). How to balance these paradoxes in communication and interaction is often also a question of competence and ethics.



Anne Laajalahti, PhD is Director of Training and Development at Infor, Management Institute of Finland MIF Ltd and Adjunct Professor of Communication Studies at the School of Marketing and Communication, University of Vaasa, Finland. In addition, she acts as President of the Finnish Association of Communication and Social Interaction (Prologos) and Co-Chair of the Research and Theory Division of the Finnish Association of Communication Professionals (ProCom). https://www.linkedin.com/in/annelaajalahti

Maijastiina Rouhiainen-Neunhäuserer, PhD is Communications Director at Ball Beverage Packaging EMEA, APAC and India, a subsidiary of Ball Corporation, a NYSE-listed Fortune-500 company. Prior to her role as strategic business partner to various C-suite leaders, Maijastiina wrote her doctoral dissertation on leadership communication competence in knowledge-based organisations and worked as an executive coach and communication consultant, trainer and visiting lecturer for various multinationals and at various European universities including eBay, Facebook, University of Jyväskylä, University of Helsinki. https://www.linkedin.com/in/maijastiina


Baxter, L. A., & Montgomery, B. M. (1996). Relating: Dialogues and dialectics. New York: Guilford.

Edelman Trust Barometer (January 2021). https://www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer

European Communication Monitor (2020). Ethical challenges, gender issues, cyber security, and competence gaps in strategic communication. Results of a survey in 44 countries. Eds. A. Zerfass, P. Verhoeven, Á. Moreno, R. Tench, & D. Verčič. Brussels: EUPRERA/EACD.

Laajalahti, A. (2018). Fostering creative interdisciplinarity: Building bridges between ethical leadership and leaders’ interpersonal communication competence. In S. Bowman, A. Crookes, Ø. Ihlen, & S. Romenti (Eds.), Public relations and the power of creativity: Strategic opportunities, innovation and critical challenges. Advances in public relations and communication management 3. Bingley: Emerald, 23–55.

Putnam, L. L., Fairhurst, G. T., & Banghart, S. (2016). Contradictions, dialectics, and paradoxes in organizations: A constitutive approach. The Academy of Management Annals, 10 (1), 65–171. https://doi.org/10.1080/19416520.2016.1162421

Rouhiainen-Neunhäuserer, M. (2009). Interpersonal communication competence of leaders and its development. Leadership communication challenges in a knowledge-based organization. Jyväskylä Studies in Humanities 128. University of Jyväskylä, Finland. http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-39-3759-1

Spitzberg, B. H. & Cupach, W. R. (2011). Interpersonal Skills. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Interpersonal Communication (4th ed.). Sage, 481–526.


We would like to thank Richard Davies for his valuable comments and suggestions