Many Excuses for Silence
When a manager encounters an ethical problem, chances are he’ll also hear—or tell himself—one of four classic rationalizations for keeping silent.
“It’s standard practice.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s not my responsibility.”
“I want to be loyal.”
Other excuses emerge, as well—for instance, time pressure—but they’re usually paired with one of the rationalizations above.
Confronting the Problem
For most people, speaking up about an ethical issue is more difficult than, say, disagreeing with colleagues about whether to raise prices or change suppliers. A lot more is at stake. Several shifts in perspective can help managers raise their voices when it’s called for.
Checklist for Action
Treat the conflict as a business matter.
Approach the conversation as you would any important business presentation—that is, support it with a persuasive amount of detail, tailor it to your audience, and deliver it in an appropriate context.
Recognize that this is part of your job.
People tend to view ethical conflicts as aberrations—distractions from “real” work. That’s just not true. Thinking them through—and doing something about them—is a regular part of professional life for finance officers, marketers, general managers, and anyone else who is in a position of responsibility.
You have a characteristic way of expressing yourself with your colleagues, and it’s best to stick with that style when you speak up about an ethical issue. I spoke with hard-charging, risk-taking managers about times when they had raised an ethical issue, and they told me, more or less, “I enjoy arguing my point of view and challenging others.” It wouldn’t make sense or even seem genuine for them to take a more conservative or timid approach to conversations about ethics.
Challenge the rationalizations.
Perhaps the most powerful tactic is to poke holes in the common rationalizations for acting unethically.
When colleagues claim that a certain behavior is standard practice, you can simply respond, “If this is standard, why is there a policy against it?” or “If it is expected, are we comfortable being public about it?”
If people make the point that an issue is not your responsibility, you are in a strong position to press ahead—in using this rationalization, they have already conceded that the behavior is wrong, or at least questionable. They are not arguing with your assessment; they’re looking for a way to avoid the conversation.
Turn newbie status into an asset.
It’s common to think you can’t address an ethical conflict because you are too new or too junior. But some managers interviewed used those very qualities as an excuse to ask a seemingly naive question to open up the discussion: “I may have misunderstood something since I’m new, but I think we’re creating a problem by posting next quarter’s sales results for this past month. Aren’t we just going to get caught in an addictive cycle?”
Expose faulty either/or thinking.
Rationalizations are often based on false dichotomies. That is, if the competitive marketplace appears to reward unethical behavior in one instance, then we assume it will never reward ethical choices. This becomes a blanket excuse. We see the choice as naive idealism on the one hand or cynical nihilism on the other. The reality is more complex: Ethical behavior is often—though not always—rewarded in the marketplace.
We see the choice as naive idealism on the one hand or cynical nihilism on the other. If either/or thinking is used to defend unethical actions, counter it by pointing that out. The strategy is not “budget cuts or product defect correction” but rather “appropriate cuts and necessary quality maintenance.”
Make long-term risks more concrete.
Research on decision biases shows that long-term costs and benefits feel less tangible than short-term ones. The best strategy here is to make big-picture concerns more concrete and thus more urgent. For example, Jonathan could calculate the financial impact of forecasting errors and carrying costs triggered by misleading sales reports that he and his colleagues in accounting had previously uncovered.
Many interviewees who’d voiced their values successfully had developed a tangible accounting of the long-term costs of not speaking up, which seemed to motivate them. One, for example, had weighed the immediate discomfort of disagreeing with his manager against the discomfort of pretending not to mind every time a similar request surfaced in the future, and he’d decided to raise his concerns.
Present an alternative.
People fear being labeled as self-righteous crusaders if they speak up. That generally doesn’t happen to those who present smart alternatives to unethical actions. There are many stories about effective communicators who helped change something important and very few about self-righteous crusaders. Consider the freshly promoted CFO who was pressured by senior colleagues to restate restructuring charges to reflect favorably, and he believed incorrectly, on the firm. He refused to do so but at the same time launched a major integrity campaign within the firm. Instead of simply saying no, he gave people something positive to pursue. His first act as CFO was an effort to empower responsible reporting, which shifted the focus from what he was unwilling to do to what he was determined to do. In the end people saw him as a visionary, not an obstacle.
The key to managing well is understanding people
You need to know what makes them tick, what motivates them, and when and how they’re at their most productive.
That’s often easier said than done.
You also can’t neglect your own motivations and development, as career progression doesn’t stop when you reach that coveted management role.
To help you get to grips to the tricky world of management, and to be the best people manager you can be, here’s a list of tips for you:
Get to know your team, and we mean really know them.
Who do they live with , what’s their family background , what’s their dog’s name?
Ask questions, listen to the answers, and remember details.
Admit your mistakes
Make wellbeing a priority
This is as much for your team’s benefit as your own – you don’t want to contribute to the idea that to be successful and reach higher levels of management in your organization you need to work all hours and always be ‘on’.
If your team see you taking holiday and prioritizing downtime so that you can bring your best self to work, they won’t be concerned about putting their own wellbeing first when they need to.
A balanced team provides no benefits if their ideas and perspectives aren’t heard. Actively listen to what they say. Give people your full attention, hear them out and, where relevant, show that you’ve taken their views on board.
Adjust your style
Find out what motivates your team, their work goals and aims, then think about how you can support them to help them be their best self and achieve those goals.
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