Saturday, October 12, 2013

Belling the Cat: When integrity and fear meet

I recently asked a group of young parents to pose a moral dilemma to their children aged between the ages of 6 and 8 or so. Not a scientific experiment you understand but curious nonetheless and I kind of knew the answer. The dilemma was around whether or not a teacher should give a certain child a negative school report. The child had been very naughty, was not doing her reading assignments and so on. The problem was that the child was related closely to a very powerful person who could cause the teacher to lose her job or at least get into trouble. What should the child do?

Well, the overwhelming response from 9 kids was that she should tell the truth. It is a rather well known that kids have a rather well developed moral compass at a relatively young age for a lot of reasons. Not least of these is that they have learned good moral responses from reading stories and parents tend to be pretty good about reinforcing the right and wrong message.

However, there is something that happens when we get to adulthood. Somehow the moral GPS gets a bit off course. This seems particularly true, although not exclusive, to organisational life.

It is fascinating to me that many organisations, without a hint of irony, flash words around their websites and strategic plans like integrity, honesty, doing the right thing, values, truth and so on from the Dictionary of Ethics smorgasbord. Yet, when it comes to telling the boss that he or she has a zit on their nose, or even worse, criticising the behaviour of senior people or the organisation itself as a whole, the powerful wind of self-interest, of fear, sweeps all before it.

There are two aspects to this of course. The first is that many managers are not very good at accepting criticism. To be fair, this is a normal human condition. We are all narcissistic to a degree and being criticised is a hard thing to accept. But one might think that being able to be self-reflective is a pre-requisite to being in a management role. Even more important, at least from an organisational point of view, is the need to improve organisational effectiveness for survival and to prevent disaster.

What can happen, and happens more often than it should, is that managers shift from defensiveness to attack and divert the criticism elsewhere: often towards the victims (if there are any) or the conveyer of the message. Again this is normal human behaviour but one would expect a higher level of sophistication among, particularly, senior managers. In fact, emotional maturity should be a pre-requisite. Interestingly this is not a trait seen in the emotional intelligence literature. But I digress. There are other defence mechanisms of course including denial, rationalisation, and so on, but projection is by far the most commonly used not just by managers but by people in everyday life.

The second issue has to do with our willingness to state what may well not be received well. This requires a think called courage. And, as one might expect is part of the moral menu of many organisations. Now, in the wrong environment (see above) this can be a real difficulty and who could blame one for not being prepared to speak up? Interesting dilemma and I wonder what the kids would say. The other side to the coin is why would one want to work in an organisation that didn’t stick to its values, that was a moral vacuum and where there was no willingness to learn and improve. Who wants to live in the organisational equivalent of a gulag?

Having been an organisational consultant for many years the moral dimension of what we do can be very confronting too. Sometimes, and inevitably, one is placed in a position where deciding to take on a particular piece of work or reporting issues that will not be received well can challenge one’s personal integrity and values. After all, one has to work. Now at the end of my working life I am less concerned about this than I used to be and am rather more inclined to walk away or to bell the cat if required than I was when I was much younger-and hungrier. It is naturally and normally human to think about one’s own survival.

The biggie of course is where is the line on compromising oneself? On compromising one’s organisation? Elephants in the room can be pretty scary fellows. It can be really ugly when you are the source of the elephant.

But as parents, what would we advise our children to do when faced with a moral dilemma or how to deal with criticism? Seems a reasonable benchmark to me if we are going to overcome our tendency to narcissism and self-interest.


  1. Insightful Stewart, as usual. Thanks.

  2. I think the word 'tact' comes in to play here. Being tactful to avoid confrontation or hurting someone's feelings is a human condition that comes with adult hood, whether it be a personal or business observation. Combine this with fear of reprisal and you set up an environment of apathy or keeping the peace. Though we tend to criticise tactless people, maybe their honesty is what is needed. Perhaps we should remove all the emotional filters surrounding people for a day and see what guess is world chaos!!