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Online Edition — February 2003

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Using Tree Diagrams to Connect Ethics Policies to Behaviors

Tree diagrams display ideas in an organized format that can be used to combine information from multiple sources into one easy-to-read display. They are powerful planning tools when you want to specify the means to achieve a specific goal or target.

One of the most complex aspects of developing and implementing a code of ethics/conduct is to translate the policies into tangible behaviors that can be evaluated objectively—in other words, to link the theories to the practices. Additionally, it’s important that behavioral expectations reflect real-life situations and responses. Tree diagrams provide a simple way for showing these linkages and involving a cross-section of employees in describing the appropriate behaviors.

A process for developing the high-level ethics policies was presented in the article, “Codes of Ethics: A Primer on Their Purpose, Development, and Use,” by Patty Brandl and Miles Maguire (The Journal for Quality and Participation, Winter 2002). We’ll focus now on the steps required to translate those policies into appropriate behaviors for the organization, teams, and individuals, as well as displaying those connections on tree diagrams.


  1. Record the ethics policies on Post-It™ notes so you can move them around more easily.
  2. Ask each team member to brainstorm organizational, team, and individual behaviors associated with each policy and write them on Post-It notes.
  3. Group the brainstormed ideas into one of three levels—organizational, team, or individual.
  4. Imagine your work space to be a matrix of columns and rows. Place the ethics policies in the far right column.
  5. In the second column from the right, align the organizational behaviors with the appropriate policy. There generally will be several organizational behaviors associated with each policy.
  6. Check to make sure that behaving as described in this column will ensure your organization’s successful attainment of the code of ethics. If necessary, add other required organizational behaviors to increase your confidence.
  7. In the next columns to the left, place the team behaviors that are associated with each organizational behavior. In some cases, the team behaviors may split into multiple rows because they are independent. After all the brainstormed team behaviors are assigned to rows and columns, check again for comprehensiveness.
  8. In the final columns on the left, place the individual behaviors associated with each team behavior, splitting into multiple rows when necessary and ensuring all relevant behaviors are included.
  9. Draw the final tree diagram, connecting each policy to its associated organizational, team, and individual behaviors.

Facilitation Tips

  • Throughout the placement process, reach consensus on the selected items.
  • If your process starts with brainstorming ideas, you may find it useful to make an affinity diagram first. You can group all the tasks that are associated with a particular policy together and then arrange them in order on the tree diagram. This can reduce the discussion time.
  • If you take time to be comprehensive, you will have more realistic plans that increase your confidence level and success rates.


Figure 1 shows a simple tree diagram that represents just a small portion of an overall ethics plan. It includes policies that are based on those of the American Library Association (

As your eye moves from right to left, the diagram shows the association between organizational, team, and individual behaviors and the policies those behaviors are designed to achieve. Behaviors are split into separate rows when they are distinctively different.

Figure 1

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