May 1, 2010

Managing with Integrity

Most professionals know instinctively that they should act with integrity, if only to avoid getting caught. Yet, of course, not everyone does.

Whether it’s Bernie Madoff ripping off investors to the tune of $50 billion or the store cashier helping themselves to $5 from the register, many people make poor ethical decisions.

Given human nature being the way it is, it’s not surprising when people are tempted to do bad things. What is a little harder to understand is when managers, who may have to answer for the conduct of others, look away when they see it happening.

This is the subject of an article in Harvard Business Review (March 2010) called “Keeping Your Colleagues Honest.” According to the article, here are the four “classic rationalizations” that keep managers silent in the face of wrongdoing:

  • “It’s standard practice”—or everyone was doing it and so that makes it okay.
  • “It’s not a big deal”—some people state it this way, “no harm, no foul.”
  • “It’s not my responsibility”—or as the Bible put it, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
  • “I want to be loyal”—or don’t be a Benedict Arnold.

HBR gives some suggestions for handling ethical dilemmas in the organization:

  1. Recognize that this is part of your job”—“people tend to view ethical conflict as aberrations…[but] that’s just not true….[it’s] a regular part of professional life.”
  2. “Make long-term risks more concrete”—all too often people get caught up in the moment and want or feel they need to take the easy way out. So a good strategy for helping people to behave more ethically involves pointing out the risks and possible long-term consequences of the behavior.
  3. “Challenge the rationalizations”—For example: “if this is standard practice, why is there a policy against it? Or if it is expected, are we comfortable being public about it?”
  4. Present an alternative”—Some mistakenly believe that ethical choices are not rewarded and are simply “na├»ve idealism,” and that we “have no choice” sometimes in doing the wrong thing. However, great managers recognize that there is always a choice.

There is no doubt that it is hard for managers to have to stand up for what’s right. There is always organizational pressure to get along, go along, and make things happen.

But in the end, we are accountable for our choices, whether we feel comfortable about it or not and whether they involve action or passivity.

In my experience, most people have a conscience and will try to do what is right. However, it is only a very few who have the self-confidence, the character, and the fortitude to stand up and follow their conscience even when it’s not easy, not convenient, not cheap, not fun, not popular, not beneficial in the short-term or even the long. (And there is not a clear playbook for every situation.)

I believe that making tough choices is our test and our trust in life, to do what we believe is right and ethical. It’s not only our greatest professional challenge but also our greatest personal one, and we cannot rationalize it away.


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