Sunday, April 09, 2006

Losing Your Ethical Compass

If you read about scandals in depth, you usually see a pattern: otherwise good people going astray. It may be comforting to think that the CEO covering his face as he pushes through a pack of reporters on the courthouse steps is far removed from ourselves and our friends, but odds are the pariah is eerily similar. At some point – to borrow a phrase made famous by Watergate - he simply lost his ethical compass.

This is not meant as an excuse. As far as I’m concerned, there are many corporate executives who could seriously benefit from a few years of chopping cotton on a prison farm and I’m thinking of ones who haven’t been convicted. But we are fooling ourselves if we overlook the subtle ways in which good – and very bright – people can go bad.

Here are a few:

Believe your own publicity. The Greeks had a great word for it: hubris. Take an ambitious achiever, mix in a cup of pride with a pinch of arrogance. Surround the ingredients with people who quickly tend to needs, both real and anticipated. Warm with excessive praise and sprinkle with success. In no time, the dish is ready.

Isolate yourself. Create an inner circle of sycophants. Seldom confuse matters with outside opinions. (What do they know anyway?) Be sure to have a series of filters so if there is bad news out there, you'll be the last to know.

Create an aura of bravado. I recall a Charles Keating associate who said that one of the requirements for acceptance in that executive circle was to fire someone. Chest-thumping and boasting are marvelous ways to justify cutting ethical corners. After all, ethics is for wimps.

Shoot the messenger and crush dissenters. Squelch opposing opinions in the name of maintaining a positive work climate. Punish anyone who tells the blunt truth. Label and mock mavericks as whiners or malcontents. Exile or fire any opposition. You'll be surprised just how quickly people will catch on. The gutsy ones will leave and the morally pliable ones will stay. There's nothing like a happy crew.

Demonize your enemies. They’re not just of a different opinion; they’re evil. You’ve got to do unto them pronto without regard to any ethical constraints. Those weasels deserve it.

Focus on the bottom line. Ignore process. Process and procedures apply to others, not to you and your team. In life, results are the only things that matter. Besides, you don’t have time to be bureaucratic. You’ve got a job to do. If the lawyers, HR, and the accountants raise troubling questions, smile and have them ushered from the room.

See good business as synonymous with good ethics. This doesn’t mean that if you are ethical, your business will flourish. It means that what is good for your business is inherently ethical. You are doing good work, helping the community, providing jobs, and contributing to the charities. How can you do all of those fine things if you don’t have the power to do so? And in order to have power, you may have to do some things that could be a tad questionable to some self-righteous bystander.

Overestimate the cost of being ethical. Our backs are to the wall. We can’t afford ethical niceties. The philosophers can debate those. We’ve got deadlines.

Don’t give your associates the permission to be ethical. There's an ethics statement posted around here somewhere. If you blabber on about ethics, people will begin to think that you’ve gone soft. We can’t afford that, can we? Not with the sharks that we've recruited.

Tell yourself that everybody does it. If you don’t do this, one of your competitors will. You don’t want to be a sucker, do you? Your actions aren’t unusual. They are common in your industry. It would be unethical for you not to do this. You have people whose livelihoods depend on you. And we can gauge ethics with a calculator. If more than three people or companies do it, it must be ethical.

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