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Lessons Learned – Mistakes Repeated Vol.5 Ethical Behavior – Principles and Practice

We don’t need Aristotle or a Code of Business Ethics – we need only 3 simple tests.

Business ethics

Every Project closure needs a time for lessons learned. Alas I am not the only one who sees the same mistakes repeated far too often. One I see repeated is not so much an isolated mistake as it is a corporate culture issue – ethics.

In this issue I will talk about the principles around ethics and in the next issue, the practical implications and 3 simple tests to determine what is ethical and what is not.

Although helpful at times, we do not need a Code of Business Ethics to tell us what is right or wrong. Nor do we need the philosophical musings of Aristotle, Plato or Kant on what constitutes ethical behavior. Ethics by its nature is about the grey area in between right and wrong. It is about choices, neither of which is perfect.

Let’s explore the dilemma of ethical decision-making.

  • Behave ethically
  • Appear to behave ethically
  • Encourage ethical behavior in others

In business, it is important to not only behave ethically but to have the appearance of ethical behavior. Many actions may appear unethical but still fall within the bounds of ethical behavior. I remember a Manager who upon detailed economic analysis discovered it was cheaper to fly his group to the Bahamas for a regional meeting then to hold it in a traditional conference center. His boss was not amused – perception is everything.

But more importantly it is the act of encouraging the ethical behavior of others and creating a corporate culture that supports ethical behavior that prevents ethical mistakes from occurring in the first place.

Corporations develop through their actions, a corporate culture that supports or does not support ethical behavior to greater or lesser extent. If one looks at the PM as the CEO of their project team they too must not only practice ethical behavior but also encourage and develop it in their teams. To do otherwise is to fail to lead.

The dilemma

Ethics is about dilemmas. Only a psychopath cannot tell right from wrong. But some ethical decisions are grey – principles we hold near and dear sometimes collide.

e allow freedom of speech in the workplace but we do not allow hurtful remarks. We know it is our responsibility to give feedback on performance but sometimes mask it in tactful remarks or other positive feedback to lessen hurt feelings but in so doing the impact is lost. We fear there may be hurtful repercussions so are less honest and forth right. Are we not cheating the project and the employee when we do this? I tell the teams I lead that the best ‘gift’ you can give your fellow team mates is open, honest feedback.

It is necessary to provide honest feedback as a demand of an ethical consultant and Project Manager. Many ethical decisions are difficult judgment calls. No one wants to hurt someone by giving him or her critical feedback but isn’t it really a gift they need to grow?

I recently had a project manager tell me she conducted a necessary mid year performance review that pointed out an employee’s need for improvement. Customer feedback was provided and suggestions for performance improvement given. Two days later the employee resigned, leaving the project manager thinking perhaps she was responsible for the resignation and the subsequent disruption of to the project. The judgment was in my opinion correct but difficult.

As Project Managers we are often faced with this dilemma. Not wanting to demoralize the individual but feeling it is necessary for the integrity of the Project to make changes.

To remain silent is to engage in unethical behavior.

Why? Because you are hired as a Project Manager to deliver on time, on budget and with the required scope and in the case of the consultant you are hired to give independent advice, even when it is unpopular to do so.

Hence if you knowingly fail to deliver on your primary obligation (your promise) to your employer because you fear conflict, hurt feelings, reprisals (real or imagined) then you cheat your employer.

That is unethical.

To remain silent is sets up a group norm

Those ‘rules of behaviour’, which are never overtly articulated but when, observed become the norm for group behavior. This is the way corporate cultures are developed over time. How would you like your group to behave? Should one remain silent when they disagree with a decision or should they engage in constructive collaborative conflict management to get the optimum solution?

In the Corporate world is it all right to cut the corners on quality to deliver on time? If no one sees it, is it OK? Corporations who lower the boom on project managers for late delivery irrespective of circumstances encourage the unethical short cuts, which harm the end customer.

Encouraging ethical decision making in others.

In the good old days we would say we have to ‘walk the talk’. Demonstrate through our own actions, ethical behavior, as we would wish our team to behave.
Today, I believe it is more about being authentic. PMs and Corporations that are comfortable in their own skin, appear real and hence believable; encourage others not just to follow rules but also to assimilate values. They are quick to realize mistakes and own up to them and correct them.

Others engage, sometimes unwittingly, in unethical actions and alas condone and contribute to the unethical corporate culture that encourages a power and control mentality.

What to do when those unpleasant consequences materialize? Even if a team member or consultant did screw up, why fire them just because you can? Why leave a dysfunctional organization to fend for themselves just because it appears easier to leave them to their own devices.

If a long-term employee screwed up would you fire them or would you practice the management skills we preach –develop employees through feedback and coaching. The convenient scapegoat covers the ass but does not solve the problem. I would argue that working with a corporation or consultant who screwed up, honestly owned up and corrected the problem rather than trying to break in a new horse is often the best business decision. Of course it requires honesty, maturity, communication and admitting that perhaps all of us share in the failure.

Unfortunately it becomes difficult to say ‘I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have done that’. Occasionally we see contractors/SMEs owning up to a poor job and Corporations owning up to mistakes made, however I see more of the Watergate cover up than an owning up.

So why is it so difficult to own up to and correct mistakes?

Because often there is a lack of trust and sincere honesty in interactions and, I believe personal insecurity. If we fear we will be attacked, fired or sued, a cover up begins. It is interesting to note that when Richard Nixon fired his two top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman, he didn’t do it himself – he had his press secretary do it. Such cowardice and lack of integrity in human interactions is unforgivable. Certainly it is not a demonstration of authenticity in the workplace, is it? Why did he send others to do the dirty work and abdicate his own responsibility? Because it was difficult to do and he knew what he was doing was wrong. Such actions clearly demonstrate the corporate culture that was in place in the White House at the time.

Few would argue that over the long term, ethical and responsible employers, PMs and consultants will benefit from honest and ethical decisions although it may be painful in the short term. Conciously building that ethical corporate culture requires us to move beyond ‘walking the talk’ to reversing our silence and doing the courageous ethical action. It is difficult but necessary to do your job and give their best advice even if it is unpopular to do so. To do otherwise is to steal from the company who hired you

‘The King has no clothes!’ Is a very underused phrase!

I suggest a re-read of my previous Lessons Learned-Mistakes Repeated

  • Retain institutional knowledge in an outsourced world by maintaining long term ethical relationships between consultants and corporations;
  • Engage in communication – without it you have nothing. Most ethical issues need not escalate with some principled behavior and honest communication by the participants.
  • Recognize the difference between positions and interests.
  • Ensure ethical conduct is a key corporate value – Based on authentic behavior and clear communication to enable values being assimilated.

I would propose three very basic rules to determine if a behavior is ethical:

The red face test – how would you feel if it appeared on the front page of the newspaper?

The sleepless nights test– what do I think of the behavior?

The protect your ass gone wrong test – everyone knows the behavior is wrong and the guilty are found bare assed for all to see.

In the next edition I will illustrate with 3 true stories, the application of ethical behavior, with the names, omitted to protect the guilty in the hopes they will see the light.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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