We talk a lot about ethics. And old school teacher of mine once told the class that we should judge the ethics of an action on the basis of whether we would take the action in the presence of our parents! Well, I can think of plenty of things that are perfectly ethical but I wouldn’t do in the presence of my parents. However, his guidance has a certain validity – the ethics of a situation is often clearer when viewed through the eyes of a third-party whose respect we desire.
Since Enron went belly-up in the early noughties, I can’t count how many mandatory CBTs on this topic I have had to complete. I don’t think I am being too cynical when I say that most companies use ethics training as a way of insuring against the legal risk of unethical behavior by its representatives. Or at least of ensuring against those representatives doing anything outrageously stupid and being caught. The Project Management Institute has an entire module dedicated to ethics in the PMP certification material. The problem with ethics is that they are easy on paper, but tougher in practice. It’s easy to nod your way through CBTs that only the most sociopathic among us would fail to pass in the final exam. The question of what and what is not “ethical” is a lot tougher in real-life.
Cognitive Dissonance and Self-Justification
Cognitive Dissonance is the term used for when a person’s behavior is in conflict with their espoused beliefs. It sounds like a nice term for “hypocrisy” to me. Yet, this is something we all suffer from. We often rationalize our behavior through Self-Justification – a process of justifying the behavior in question. For example, a person might hold a belief that Climate Change is bad, and that we need to take actions to minimize its effects. But that person might still jump on a plane every summer to take their family away for a holiday. The Cognitive Dissonance is the contrast between the belief (“we need to reduce CO2 emissions”) and the action (“contributing to CO2 emissions in non-essential travel”). The Self-Justification comes in when excuses are made – “I’m only one person, so anything I do as an individual would have no effect”; “China opened 40 new coal-burning power stations yesterday”; “It’s the government’s responsibility to put in place policies to reduce CO2 emissions”. With Self-Justification, we perform the mental gymnastics needed to reconcile our actions with our values by minimizing (“As an individual, I have no effect on climate change”), and displacement of responsibility (“it’s the government’s responsibility”).
Is Unethical Behavior Inevitable?
In the Christian worldview, it is believed that everyone is a sinner. Perhaps I am therefore culturally conditioned to believe that unethical behavior is an inseparable part of the human condition. After all, it seems from an evolutionary point of view our brains are pretty well hardwired both to act unethically, and to inoculate us from the worst pangs of conscience through Self-Justification. You could go as far to say that there is an evolutionary advantage to having a weaker conscience – we are the descendants on those who did whatever was needed to survive and thrive.
Why do we need ethics then?
But this is only partly the truth. “Morality” or “Doing What is Right” is also something that evolution has not bred out of humanity. There must be some evolutionary advantage to having a sense of right and wrong. It has been theorized that the origins of human morality lie in a pre-historic advantage to surviving in a group. A group of humans is more likely to survive and pass on the genes of its members to future generations than a set of unco-operating individuals. For groups to survive there need to be rules, and individuals must have an incentive to sometimes behave against their own short-term interests.
What this means is that the group that survives is the one that contains individuals with the right balance between selfish instincts and instincts to obey the group’s rules. While some unethical behavior is inevitable, the group that shuns ethics is also less likely to survive in the long-term. We can see in our own times examples like that of Enron where the balance between selfishness and ethics was almost non-existent – leading to the complete destruction of that group. Ethics are therefore essential to the long-term survival of any human group.
Conquering Self Justification
So, in order to preserve the institutions and relationships that are important to us – our jobs, our marriages, for example – we need to think ethically. But how do we do that when our brains seem pre-wired to mask our consciences with a blanket of Self Justification? There are a number of questions to ask oneself in situations that potentially triggers an ethical concern;
- Is my taking of this action predicated on the need to keep a secret that, if exposed, would be an embarrassment? The need for secracy is often a warning flag.
- Could someone affected by my action reasonably perceive my action as dishonest or deliberately misleading? Deception and bad ethics are close bed fellows.
- What would I think of the actions of someone else in this situation? Placing yourself outside the situation and looking in often gives a unique perspective.
- Does the action cause direct or indirect harm to other people for my own benefit. Are we following the “do unto others…” ideology?
What has this to do with Project Management?
Project Managers are often placed in a situation where hard decisions need to be made. Is the project ethical in the first place? Are ethical risks being taken to pursue the goals? Are ethical means being taken to achieve the project’s goals? These are questions we must ask ourselves, and be prepared to answer honestly.
- A Framework for Thinking Ethically; Santa Clara University