Doing the Right Thing May Be Easier Than You Think

We all know the hard stories of corporate whistleblowers. Sharon Watkins at Enron, Cynthia Cooper at Worldcom, for example. We view such people—quite rightly—as having not just the courage of their convictions, but courage enough to put their social and economic lives at risk for the sake of what they see as right. We all live in a better world because of the risks taken by such people.

Most of us think that such whistleblowers are rare, and perhaps they are. But we also think the cards are stacked against them—that the reason they are so rare is the likelihood of retaliation against someone going up against ‘the system.’

What if that’s not true? What if the risk of doing the right thing is in fact vastly overstated? That virtue is in fact appreciated more than we think? If that’s true, then what excuse do we all have for not doing the right thing more often?

Examples of Ethical Behavior that Evoke Admiration

Twice in the past two weeks I have heard stories that make me think we underestimate the power of good behavior. Briefly:

Story One. I was brought in to manage a main stream of a major contract we had with the government. To my horror, I quickly realized it was over budget, behind schedule, and we were not in a position to attest otherwise. Yet we had a major meeting upcoming at which I would be asked to do just that.

My boss and my boss’s boss had a lot riding on this. The government client had a lot riding on this. It was clear everyone wanted me to sign off and just deal with it, somehow, later. As I entered the headquarters building that day, I had this horrible feeling I was about to lose my job.

The moment came, and I was asked to publicly attest to our progress against milestones. “I simply cannot do that,” I said. “We are not in compliance on a number of those items, and I can’t claim otherwise.” I went home that night prepared to clear out my desk the next day.

But when I went to work the following day, it was as if little had happened. “Good job,” said one superior, “we had no business signing off.” The client appeared relieved too. I later was promoted; we also got more client work. In both cases, this moment was cited as a positive example of my performance.

Story Two. I was a manager of a large client project, which involved a presentation to the client’s Board of Directors. The CEO suggested that if our work turned out a certain way, we would receive a lot of business. I said I could not in good conscience bend the work the way he wanted it.

The next day, in front of the Board, the CEO put me on the spot, saying I was prepared to comment on my findings in a way that would have favored his request. I gulped. I didn’t confront him head on; but I did say that the data and analysis that we had performed unfortunately did not, in fact, support the CEO’s hoped-for outcome, but rather another.

I thought I would be in serious trouble with my boss. Instead, he told me that’s why they hired me in the first place, to stand up to tough situations. A few weeks later, a board member—a director in half a dozen other, larger companies—came to me with invitations to present at those companies. He said he did so because he could read between the lines and knew what I had done.

We Underestimate the Attraction of Ethical Behavior

I have no idea how common these stories are. They could be the exception rather than the rule (though I rather think there are more than we hear about).

The real point, however, is how easily the two organizations fell in behind these two people to support them in doing the right thing. As it turned out, their fears were unfounded. 

This I suspect is true: that we overstate the threat posed by ‘them.’ We overestimate the likelihood that no one would stand behind us, and that there is no support in our organizations for doing the right thing.

I suspect this too is true: that we understate the ability of people to appreciate the obviousness of the right thing. We under-state their hunger and willingness to follow someone who does the right thing, that there is in fact a reservoir of great good will and support.

Believing this doesn’t take anything away from the true courage it takes to be a whistleblower. On the contrary, it may suggest that the truly unethical and anti-social organizations are fewer than we think.

The bigger problem may lie not in unethical leaders, but in managers and future leaders who are too afraid to try on ethical leadership for size.

Where’s your whistle? What are you waiting for?

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