HomeBusiness Ethics

The sense of your conscience (first appeared in InfoWorld)

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

When you’re negotiating, be smart and act stupid.

I’ve heard this advice many times over the years, but my pride never lets me accept it. Ego-gratification always ends up taking precedence over financial gain.

This is semi-good career counsel too. When you try to prove you’re smarter than your organizational superiors (superior in position only, of course), one of two things will happen – both bad:

1. You succeed. By both being smarter and spending your energy proving it, you’ve made yourself dangerous.

2. You fail. You’re not executive material – you just don’t measure up.

Keep your ego out of it. When you disagree, you aren’t right and your boss isn’t wrong. You’re discussing and reconciling alternatives, to help fine-tune the program. In the end, your initiative and skill have to advance your boss’s decisions, not your own. This is called “followership” and it’s a valuable and valued skill.

You may be getting peeved, thinking I’m recommending toadyism. Think again. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. I’m just giving a practical example of how the workplace punishes sinfulness.

Many readers took similar exception to an earlier column, which pointed out that the ethics of power lead to complications beyond commonplace, day-to-day morality. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and that’s all there is too it, complained some of these readers. Regardless of what I actually said, grumbled others, my column encouraged unethical behavior among the powerful.

Notes from readers and messages posted on the InfoWorld Electric forum on the subject, brought several points into sharper focus:

1. The Edge of the Slippery Slope: Politicians used to gain power to advance their programs. Bad enough, but as campaigning has become marketing, politicians now adjust their programs to gain power. This distinction – gaining power to achieve worthwhile ends vs attaching yourself to whatever ends will gain you power, define (for me) the edge of an ethical precipice. When you’re playing the power game, ask yourself this question on a regular basis: “What am I trying to achieve, and if I achieve it, will I approve of the result?”

2. Means and Ends: The ends, we’re told as children, never justify the means. This guidance provides a useful touchstone … for children. Adults, especially those with some power (and that includes everyone in management) need to apply a more sophisticated calculation.

Every action (the means) has both an immediate consequence, consequences intended to achieve a goal (the end), and unintentional effects as well (side effects). Defining the ethics of an action by its immediate consequence alone is naive – the ethical content of an action must be measured through a complex calculus that takes into account all of its consequences.

You’ve heard this before: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

3. Gut Feeling: Should you trust your instincts when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong? Probably not. Huck Finn pointed this out: “If I had a yaller dog with no more sense than a man’s conscience, I’d shoot him.”

Your gut feelings come from how your mother raised you, and Mom didn’t explain the choices I’d have to make as a manager. An anecdote to illustrate the point:

Several years ago, one of my staff had to insist that a vendor replace a project manager on an installation. Our complaint ended up getting the project manager fired. My staff felt understandably bad about the impact on this guy.

Here was my response: “You knew the guy who got fired. A total stranger now has an opportunity. Your knowing someone personally doesn’t make him or her more deserving.”

After reading the earlier column, my friend Steve Nazian reminded me of a character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, who recommended: “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”

Proving, once again, the value of science fiction to your career.