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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Personal Ethics in the Corporate World

I think the key is to remember that we are not inherently the good guys just because we start out with good intent. It takes a lot to evade the self-justifying tendencies that all of us confront. Knowing that, we may be just the ones who can meet the challenge of running a business while remaining true.

How can we as consultants help our clients make ethical decisions and not cross over to the “dark side”?
There is an important opportunity here that is not often named. As David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz described in “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” [s+b, Summer 2006], the amount of attention we devote to something affects how strongly it plays out in our decision making. As consultants, we can envision ourselves serving as an active representation of our clients’ larger perspectives and purposes — perhaps as a counterbalance to the threats and siege mentality that can accompany crises and obscure win-win solutions or hidden degrees of freedom. This can be as simple as asking questions from the perspective of a client’s larger intent.

I also think consultants can serve as part of the support system that helps leaders keep their own score and draw meaning from efforts that perhaps no one else sees or that won’t pay off for years to come. A colleague just told me a story about an executive who was struggling because his leadership efforts were not acknowledged (although they were received and acted upon). When my friend, who was this man’s coach, asked him why he had gotten into the field in the first place, the executive described an inspiring mentor named George who had revealed his own bigger game. As they continued to speak about his need for acknowledgment, the coach said to him, “I imagine George would be tremendously proud of you right now.” As simple as this confirmation was, the leader was visibly moved by it. Perhaps we all need a witness to sustain our efforts, and consultants may be able to help provide that.

About a year ago, I left the nonprofit world of social/human services for the for-profit world of corporate business. I still have difficulty in the shift. Will this uncomfortable feeling ease or does this internal struggle continue?
I understand that must be challenging. I remember spending time with a nonprofit and finding it shockingly satisfying just to be able to name what I cared about without coming across as naive, foolish, or weak.

I’d suggest you consider several questions to clarify your intent and enable you to “write your own contract.” What did it serve for you to enter the corporate world? What can you accomplish there that is worth your energy? What do you need to sustain yourself (all of yourself, not just materially), what is nonnegotiable, and how will you keep score on what matters to you?

You should also ask yourself whether the different perspective that you bring has the potential to make a contribution to that organization. What values do you share and respect, and where does the tension lie? People at the company may not see either. It’ll take some skill, but you may be able to represent the differences in a constructive, nonjudgmental way that broadens others’ sense of possibilities.

I suspect it may continue to be difficult, but if you are truly there to serve something you value, you can improve your situation by recognizing the challenge as worthwhile and being generous about lining up support for yourself.

What have we learned from WorldCom, Tyco, and Enron?
These most recent crises, coupled with observations from my interviews, suggest three patterns we might learn from.

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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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