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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Personal Ethics in the Corporate World

How to confront the moral tensions inherent in corporate life and come out with your ethics intact.

In today’s high-pressure work environment, it is not unusual for conflicts to arise between our values as individuals and the compromises that we must make for our organizations. After interviewing people who had struggled to remain true to their personal values, I explored this dilemma in “Winning the Devil’s Bargain,” published in the Spring 2007 issue of strategy+business, and then discussed it in an s+b online seminar. The response to the seminar was so enthusiastic that there wasn’t enough time to address all of the audience questions. Here, I take on some of the unanswered queries.

I am an instructor in a business school; my area of focus is sustainability and corporate social responsibility [CSR]. What do you think is important to convey to young people or students about developing the “bigger game”? How can they maintain a sense of realistic idealism?
The moment when we leave business school and enter the workforce is a crucial one. It’s a time when we tend to squelch our own aspirations based on assumptions about making a living or on a difficult experience. Addressing this pattern is especially important as more companies embrace sustainability and CSR, so the inevitable challenges of institutions don’t discourage us. That said, here are a few points to help those about to embark.

  • Figure out what your bigger game is. It is probably a combination of what you believe needs to be done in the world and your particular strengths and preferences. In fact, I would almost say that wherever you see barriers, those are potential bigger games. Another ingredient of an effective bigger game is that you are likely to be able to meet your basic needs while pursuing it. This is about the long haul; it requires us to sustain ourselves, but not to sacrifice ourselves.
  • Don’t expect a predefined path. Too often people assume that the only valid paths are those that are well publicized. Once you find your bigger game, you will probably have to seek out the unique settings where you can pursue it. As one young person I interviewed said, “I’d really prefer to work on something that is of service. But they weren’t recruiting for that.”
  • Challenge the simplistic dichotomy of “good guys/bad guys.” Study what limits and enables organizations to live up to their aspirations, and learn about the crucial role of followers — so you don’t become disillusioned when even the most inspired organization struggles to stay true.
  • Adopt an ongoing practice for broadening your thinking. This was the source of continued growth and realignment for many of those I interviewed. Some examples of such practices could include reading books outside your area of expertise, giving yourself a “pulse check” every five years, or sustaining friendships with those in other spheres.

Would starting my own business help me avoid compromising my values?
Starting a business can be a promising solution for some of us, but we need to recognize the additional strains it creates. It does free us to be the architect of our own commitments and choices and theoretically to be truer to what we value. It allows us to craft innovative offerings, and can offer us the flexibility to pursue more than just money — especially if the company is private.

But starting a business also puts us in direct contact with the forces that probably led our prior organizations to their compromises. We must still engage with the larger business context as we obtain financing, hire employees, and market our products. Is our new cause so valuable that we feel justified in promising the investors whatever it takes to get the funding? Will our employees now withhold some of the truth out of deference to our authority? One dedicated leader who left the corporate world to run a small business described to me how challenging it is to remember our deeper beliefs in the midst of keeping a business alive.

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  1. Ira Chaleff, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders (Berrett-Koehler, 2003): Concrete advice for calling (and re-calling) leaders to their highest purposes. Click here.
  2. Elizabeth Doty, “Personal Ethics in the Corporate World,” s+b Webinar, 10/25/07: The online seminar that generated these questions, and many others; a recording of the event and a PDF of the presentation are available. Click here.
  3. Elizabeth Doty, “Winning the Devil’s Bargain,” s+b, Spring 2007: When the business world compromises an individual’s values, courage and climate can make all the difference. Click here.
  4. Debra E. Meyerson, Tempered Radicals: How Everyday Leaders Inspire Change at Work (Harvard Business School Press, 2003): A practical description of how individuals influence a company’s culture and practices. Click here.
  5. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” s+b, Summer 2006: Breakthroughs in brain research explain how to make organizational transformation succeed. Click here.
  6. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (Harcourt, 2007): A study of the pervasiveness of self-justification, denial, and rationalization in a variety of settings. Click here.
  7. Winning the Devil’s Bargain Weblog: Elizabeth Doty’s recently launched blog inviting discussion on these topics. Click here.
  8. WorkLore Web site: Elizabeth Doty’s company, with additional resources available. Click here.
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