Tag Archives: Rules and Ethics

What to do when enough is clearly enough

When I have taught MBAs Negotiations, some of the richest conversations about “how it really works” vs. how it is supposed to work. There are always references to specific individuals in the organization who seem to inhabit different worlds. Part of the education is to build skills in understanding and empathizing with other world views with the mantra that “reasonable people can reasonably disagree” about just about anything. The opportunity is to find an intersecting interest, which can be fulfilled despite differing underlying biased perceptions. This can be quite a psychological dance, and takes skill, perseverance, humility and patience in the real world.

I found myself recently looking up an article that had shown up in a previous course reading list: “Negotiating with Disordered People” by Elizabeth Jeglic and Alexander Jeglic. The article describes, from a clinical perspective, some of the common mental health issues in society. Such conditions may not only go untreated, but may even enable people’s corporate upward mobility. The Jeglics stop short of prescribing actions and strategies suggesting that is beyond the scope of the reading.

The net-net of the reading, from my perspective, is that when encountering a difference of opinion, there is some room between “Let me try to understand your perspective on this,” and “Wow! Are you serious?” I experience the latter when listening to Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford, and his city councillor brother Doug this week. What do you do when you are dealing with someone whose world is such that because something happened in the past, it is no longer relevant. (What doesn’t happen in the past?)

I really liked Chris Selley’s advice from the National Post earlier this week. (Note: this was before the infamous “Crack Tuesday”) Selley says to ignore them and withdraw the attention that appears to be the pair’s lifeblood. That is difficult to do, but it is a reasoned strategy called “avoid.” Cornered people can be dangerous; the response from a marginalized person tends to be much less dramatic simply because the audience is thinner. (As a distinct action in that direction, I just un-followed Rob Ford on Twitter.)

Business Ethics Professor, Chris MacDonald discusses the ethical implications of working for such an individual. This is a worthwhile discussion because as information seeps out, those closer to the situation always get an early look as the worm turns on such scandals.

For more junior employees, he says that “keeping your job” is one of the relevant considerations in determining how to address such a boss. In the spirit of freedom of choice, one would expect anyone working under such a leader to start looking for an exit strategy. Selfishly, given the “small world” nature of many industries, there is a downside to being seen as an enabler: beware of being tainted by an association that went on too long.

He goes on to say that for those further up the authority ladder, the loyalty should lie with the company’s mission, not with the leader. The more clarity the organizations have regarding the good they are trying to accomplish (including for whom), the easier it will be to make a reasoned appeal to others to move away from an unhinged leader and toward a greater good. As a preventative measure, clarity on the specific nature of value makes it easier to see when slight or sudden veers off track. This clarity allows a reasonable person to say “It is not that I am ganging up on you; it’s just that what you are doing is limiting our ability to (insert clear mission).”

In short, do what you can, which may include leaving, developing political workarounds, colluding, confronting or any number of other actions. Once enough is clearly enough, there is a shared responsibility to act.

Do the right thing vs. Don’t do anything wrong

There is a fantastic “smartest-guy-in-the-room” scene from the movie Apollo 13. U.S. astronauts are stranded in space aboard a damaged spacecraft; chaotic discussion ensues until “John” emerges, confident and clean-cut, to point the way: It’s about power. Without power nothing else works. Conserve power and they have a chance.

Fast forward through the great scene where they construct an air filter using only on-board materials (Relax, they had duct tape). Failure was not an option and the mission succeeds. The astronauts return to Earth.

Such scenes can be heartwarming in that the person who knew what they were talking about (the expert) was able to convince important people (boss and group) to do right thing, and the result was success. In the context of an obvious crisis, the “right thing” becomes clear. In many instances, such disagreements as whether or not we even have a crisis (e.g. climate change) make it very difficult to have the “right-thing” discussion, let alone how we will judge success.

This week at Ryerson University, I attended an event that explored this idea of “doing right thing,” and also waded into who are the “right people” to be doing it, namely leaders in government and in corporations. The entire talk is here.

Here are some of my high points:

Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page described his role, which struck me as similar to “John” in the Apollo 13 clip. It was his job to generate good information for decision makers. He did not have the luxury of operating in an obvious crisis, which is the lot of anyone doing 75-year financial projections. His overriding mission (e.g. success) was: “we want to have a prosperous country.”

Note: In his commentary, Sheldon Levy aptly names such a clear focus a personal “North Star.”

Kevin spoke of standing on principle, and I got the sense that he would have been able to defend every single action that he took as contributing to “a prosperous country” or identifying the risk of actions that threatened that pursuit. For him, this was the divide between right and wrong, which appeared to give focus to his role and purpose. This was not about securing his personal career, so there would be no pandering to partisan influences. His calling was higher. He and his team sought out experts to get accurate costing on plans that would cost a lot of money. Things that cost a lot of money have a greater chance of impacting long-term prosperity. The logic is unflappable.

He seemed genuinely surprised at the propensity of elected officials to make decisions without understanding the impact. If a reasonable person faced a policy decision that brought long-term implications (e.g. changes in court sentencing that would see more people serve time in penitentiaries), this reasonable person would want to know how much it cost, wouldn’t they?

It turns out the answer was sometimes, “No,” which is a natural human response.

  • When you take the student loans for education, do you really want to know how long you will be debt-laden?
  • When you buy the membership to the gym, do you really want to know who little you will use it?
  • When you celebrate with a steak dinner, red wine and cheesecake, do you really want to know how long you will have jog to burn it all off?

He also described an environment of fear, which was echoed in Maryantonett Flumian’s comments. She seemed to be asking: “When did ‘do the right thing’ give way to ‘don’t do anything wrong’?” She lamented a shift from internally driven principles and ethics to externally imposed rules and regulations. Will we return to these good old days?

Chris MacDonald at Ryerson curated an exceptional event. These conversations will continue and have as much implication for individuals as they do for the governments, corporations and other organizations that employ people. We look forward to the continued dialogue.

 

Profits and purpose: what really matters? (Survey Insights part 4)

The BBC published an article on Abraham Maslow this week describing the impact of the hierarchy of needs that bears his name. Any social psychology or organizational behaviour course will touch on this in trying to explain the motivators and needs that have people do what they do.

Like many such frameworks, their utility in explaining/predicting the actions of others tends to fall short. It becomes an endless guessing game of rationalizing conscious decisions and analyzing subconscious yearnings. We are going to move the focus to: “me, and what I want” not “them, and what they want.”

In our Summer Survey, we asked:

“If individuals were looking for a sense of purpose from their professional life, to what degree does your organization provide that?”

NOTE: If you don’t subscribe to the “purpose need” theory, you debunk this whole line of thought. People want money; pay them and they work. Pay them more and they work harder. We will address this later.

The results were not unexpected. At the leadership level of the organization, the “purpose need” appears to be fulfilled: one third report that the purpose is “obvious” and more than half say people could find it in different ways.

Further down the organization, the results are opposite. The number of people who report being “here to work” (e.g. absence of purpose beyond Maslovian survival) grows to one-third at the middle-tier level, and to more than half at the lowest levels of the organization.

One explanation for employees not taking the opportunity to be more invested, involved, and engaged with their work is that the organization is not being clear or consistent enough about how their work matters.

For a moment, let’s put the onus on leadership to declare a preference for the kind of success they will pursue. Yes, we want to be profitable, but our self-imposed constraints (e.g. constraints we select not restrictions/rules to which we comply) reveal what matters most and may embody one’s sense of purpose.

So this could give you:

  • a bank that is committed to keeping jobs in the local economy
  • an oil-and-gas company committed to reducing the effects of carbon emissions
  • a fast-food company committed to educating consumers on nutrition

Do any of these “commitments” sound familiar?

The internal audiences will be most attuned to inconsistency because they will see (or suspect) what really drives decisions and what lines a being stretched or crossed. Inconsistency is a breeding ground for cynicism and could be a reason for disengagement such that you report being “here to work.” The rubber hits the road when an organization takes a decision consistent with a “commitment” and appears to forego profit maximization in the short-term.

  • If your organization is poised-to grow, would investors or shareholders support such a commitment?
  • If you are competing for talent, would good employees reward you with loyalty?
  • If you are competing for funding dollars, could this build your credibility with foundations and with public sector funders?

In all cases, there will be some important parties who don’t agree or don’t care.  The better question is “Would you get enough support for you to succeed?” and “What could you do to gain the support of those who need to see results?” Selecting the right measures and delivering results will be fundamental to your success.

Stay tuned for the next post where we shift the focus to the rank-and-file responsibilities.

The Role of Rules

Last fall at a Business Ethics Speaker Series event, I listened to Daniel Weinstock from McGill University deliver a talk on rules and ethics in sport. It was a fascinating collision of philosophy’s deep thought and a man’s passion for the game of hockey. What emerged to me was the relevance of rules in business and collaboration.

Two of the concepts that Prof. Weinstock examined were, to paraphrase, “rules that no one argues with” and loopholes. As champions of following procedures and sticking to contracts, supply chain professionals should be familiar with both. They may also share the frustration of not being able to enforce rules with the internal rule-breakers and the unintended consequences of new rules.

The Rule is the Rule

In sport, the “rules no one argues with” pertain to safety and to fair play. Although some purists in hockey will fondly recall the flowing locks of Ron Duguay or Guy Lafleur, few could make the case to repeal the helmet rule. Similarly, to stick with hockey, no one argues with the “too many players on the ice” penalty. Both safety and fairness appear to provide a solid base for the presence of a restriction on actions in the form of a rule. No rule, however, is completely bullet proof:

• Safety: Could “no helmets” actually help the concussion situation because people would not hit as hard?
• Fairness: Hockey fans will appreciate the discussion of “fair play” around “The Avery Rule.”

If safety and fairness work most of the time for sports, what constitutes these solid planks in business?

  • Cost savings?
  • Profitability?
  • Customer satisfaction?
  • Sustainability?
  • Doing the right thing?

There is promise here for a 2×2 matrix that plots “ability to quantify” vs. “importance to long-term business success.” Even with such a tool, there are no clear winners. An organization can try to be clear about its stance on what is important. Johnson & Johnson’s credo is one attempt at this clarity.

The wording will never be perfect, but such proclamations can reflect the organizational direction and the industry context. For example, a logistics outsourcing operation could logically place “cost savings” or some form efficiency within the rules that no one expected to argue with. The goal, I think, should be to be somewhat clearer than statements like “we value integrity and honesty” but not as prescriptive as “never ever spend more than you absolutely have to.”

The Rule isn’t Really the Rule

Loopholes are fuzzy in a different way. The shared understanding of these was that such rules enable someone to operate “within the rules” while clearly operating outside the spirit of the game. In an organizational setting, these are called “workarounds.” Your view of the effectiveness of the rule is the thing that separates a “workaround” from “loophole.” In either case, everyone knows they are happening… and some may be very aligned with the long-term success of the business.

The presence of a workaround may provide an area of opportunity to be clearer. Acknowledging the work-around can identify a rule that could change. In some instances, the threat of “re-opening the constitution” may be too great or too troublesome. It may simply provide an opportunity to revisit the “spirit” of our activity. This should be a health discussion that could help mutual understanding.

A Rule for Rules?

Understanding the role of rules is important. We don’t want to prescribe unless something very important (e.g. personal safety) is at risk. For many cases, guidelines can provide people with the freedom to act and use judgment in performing their function. And, no, there is no clear rule for rules.