When ethical blunders happen, we love to point our fingers at the villain. Pinpointing a protagonist gives us closure. It helps us make sense of why the bad thing happened - because someone was unethical.
Indeed, there are many cases where someone knowingly broke the law or intentionally took advantage of the system. But the truth is, more often than not, the ethical mishap is more nuanced and caused by an interaction of the person’s behaviors (or lack thereof) and the situation they are in.
The competitive and regulatory stance of an industry, the culture and structure of an organization, and the interpersonal dynamics of superiors and peers, also play a vital role in unethical outcomes.
Individuals should always be accountable for their actions. But if we stop there and fail to reevaluate the system in which they are embedded, the system will continue to produce unethical outcomes regardless of the characteristics of the people involved.
How often do you have text message conversations with friends and family during your work time? Let me guess - the dozen or so texts are spread out over 30 minutes as you toggle back-and-forth to your work tasks. This is not ideal.
We know that distractions are bad for productivity. However, you can’t ignore friends and family, right?
My colleagues, clients, and students respect my worst-case scenario, 24-hour turnaround time. This is unlikely to fly with friends and family. It’s personal, therefore, it’s rude to not respond quickly.
But what about a compromise? What if we promised to do all of our non-work responses during a specific window of the after-work evening hours? Would that be so bad?
This aligns with the common productivity philosophy of “chunking versus sprinkling.” The more we can chunk together common tasks, the better we’ll be at staying focused on the task at hand.
The downside is that not everyone will be available when we’re ready for our scheduled chunk of communication. Perhaps that deserves a coordination message where you give each other a window of availability.
The upside is that we’ll actually be engaged in the conversation - not multi-tasking with work concerns in the background. Additionally, if we stay focused on getting work done during work hours, we’ll free up more time to engage in more non-work interactions.
It’s late, you’re tired, and your inbox is still overflowing with unread messages. This is the moment where you decide whether it’s better to power through or power down.
On the one hand, you could power through in order to stay on top of things. There is value in that approach because maintaining control limits stress. Further, for better or worse, business rewards productivity.
On the other hand, you could power down to maintain sanity. There is value here in that rest and recovery are critical for maintaining one’s well-being. Further, it prevents burnout, which is connected to major episodes of productivity derailment.
So what should you choose?
Typically, our personal characteristics drive this decision. Things like personality, motivation, and the like.
What we should be incorporating into this decision are situational elements. Can certain people wait for your response? What does your calendar look like over the next few days? How have you been doing lately on sleep, stress, and overall well-being?
When in these moments of deciding whether to power through or power down, consider the context and implications of your decision.
I once made a serious gaffe in a formal meeting with 20+ attendees. All of them older, wiser, and more experienced.
The comment was so incredibly stupid that for the next five minutes I was the source of an outrageous amount of laughter.
That was years ago, and I can still close my eyes and go back to the moment. I’m tormented by the memory of that experience. I was sweating. I couldn’t think of anything witty or self-deprecating to smooth it over.
The reality, however, is that no one in that meeting remembers what I said (I’ve asked). To them, it was just something to laugh about. Oddly enough, I made that meeting halfway entertaining - for at least those five minutes.
We’re all human. We all say stupid things sometimes.
Stop ruminating. Move on. No one really cares. We’ve got more important things to think about.
I once saw a pinned tweet that essentially said the following:
“I love my job. I love to work. I’d work 100 hours a week if I could. But I also want to take lunch with a friend at a moment’s notice. And if a family member is sick, I want to take an entire month off and never check my email.”
While this example is relatively extreme, I think it nicely summarizes a paradox of working in the 21st century. Our willingness to work extremely hard is tied to how much flexibility we have.
For many, it’s more likely that we work somewhat hard and we have some degree of flexibility. Organizations aren’t just going to give employees extreme flexibility. That’s too expensive.
But if employees, in mass, staring demanding it - and offering extreme levels of commitment in return - it might just happen.
Ethics are important in the workplace. So important that you should error on the side of caution.
Just because you don’t have evidence that someone did something immoral, doesn’t mean you should ignore your gut when something doesn’t feel right.
Does it seem like they are leaving out details?
Does it seem like they are withholding their sources?
Does it seem like they are reluctant to share information?
These are important signals. Trust your instincts. Call them out or walk away. If you don’t, you'll be sorry down the down.
You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, right? 80% of the value is created by 20% of your employees.
What if I told you that research suggests that it’s more like 5%, not 20%? Yes, 5 out of 100 people are clearly your “star performers,” producing far more value than the remaining 95%.
What are the implications for human capital strategy?
We should be spending more time finding our stars and cultivating those relationships. What would ensure that they stay at your organization, continuing to add value for years to come?
We should also stop encouraging stars to take on positions that aren’t a fit for them. The classic example is promoting the top sales performer into a sales manager position. Salespeople sell. Managing might not be their thing.
We consider all sorts of psychographics when managing human capital - personality, values, strengths, and the like. If we ignore what are arguably the more important factors - employee needs, drives, and preferences - we’re missing the boat.
"Can You Take The Lead On This?”
If you are my boss and you ask respectfully, then yes, I’m happy to do the work that you are assigning me.
But if you are my peer, this question is problematic.
What this typically means is “I don’t want to do the work on this, so it’d be awesome If you’d do the work instead.”
A better framing would be to ask, “what part of this project would you like to lead?”
The assumption that one of you will lead and the other will follow is also flawed. That’s not how teams succeed.
The best teams are those that repeatedly grant and claim team leadership roles as the situation dictates.
I know that sometimes it might feel “leader-like” to ask someone to take the lead on something. It’s not. That’s something a manager says.
I’ve worked on several projects in my career where the other party dropped the ball. It drives me nuts.
Typically it’s because they either changed their mind and re-prioritized or they took on more than they could manage.
Maybe it is what it is. Sometimes things just don’t come together.
However, you do have some degree of control and can limit the likelihood that it will happen in your relationships.
To prevent ball dropping, spend more time upfront talking about expectations. Make it clear that you don’t want to start the project unless X, Y, or Z is the final outcome. Then put it in writing - an informal email summarizing the initiative will suffice.
Still didn’t prevent the other party from going missing in action? Never, ever, work with them again.
There are too many people out there doing great things to get stuck on one relationship. If you don’t have that luxury, perhaps because they have been assigned to your team, do your best to not co-own responsibilities.
Ball dropping might be an unavoidable part of work. But it doesn’t mean you can’t proactively manage the probabilities that it will happen to you.
When it comes to leadership, we are inundated with contradicting suggestions on "what" to do.
We should have executive presence, but we should also be a humble leader. We should be proactive, but we should also have a clear goal in mind before taking action.
So which is it?
The more accurate (and more helpful) answer is that it depends on the situation. This is the "when."
Don't oversimplify. Add context. Challenge yourself to think through the when, not just the what.
We just can’t help comparing ourselves to others.
It’s not your fault - it’s innate.
From an evolutionary psychology perspective, comparing one’s self to others ensures that we are doing the right things (and not doing the wrong things) in order to survive.
The problem is that in a world where we’re all doing relatively fine, this tendency is problematic.
We take a hit to our self-esteem when we compare to people that are "better" than us.
To ensure that social comparisons are helpful instead of hurtful, we have to take the thought process a step further.
What sacrifices have they made? Is that really what I want? What knowledge, skills, or abilities do they have that I don’t? Is it realistic to acquire those talents?
Social comparisons can either be depressing or facilitate growth. The choice is yours.
Every so often I find myself stuck in a conversation with someone that I wish would end.
Sometimes I’m in productivity overdrive where every minute counts, and I just don’t have time for small talk with acquaintances. Other times it’s someone I know well and care about, but I’m in the middle of something.
This is especially problematic for those of us in “deep thinking” jobs. Losing your train of thought can mean a major loss of momentum.
I’ve tried body language. They don’t notice. I’ve also tried to be polite by going with the flow, keeping it short, and steering the conversation towards a close. It doesn’t work.
I think the solution is two-fold:
(1) Respond with purpose. Make it clear that you genuinely don’t have time or need to finish something. The context should dictate how much you explain.
(2) Respond Immediately. The chances of stopping a conversation after one back-and-forth are slim to none.
Although it might feel cold while in the moment, it’s actually more disrespectful to pretend you are interested or only be partially engaged.
Be prepared for your next encounter. The chatterbox always tends to appear when you are in the middle of something.
We know a great deal about leadership, the process of leading others towards collective goals.
Comparatively speaking, we know relatively little about self-leadership, the process of leading ourselves towards self-set goals.
Self-leadership is about increasing our self-awareness, which in turn, leads to self-regulation (see Bryant & Kazan, 2012). It’s in these moments of self-regulation where we get closer to being our ideal self.
Self-leadership is complex. It has to be specific to the individual because each of us has unique characteristics, goals, and circumstances.
Self-leadership is also challenging. It’s about what goes on inside our heads. This means that sometimes our assumptions and biases can get in the way.
That’s why I’ve started this blog called The Self-Leadership Experiment.
The goal is to create a community where participants can self-reflect, contextualize, and debate the merits of different strategies.
This approach recognizes that leadership is not a person, it’s a process. It takes ongoing experimentation—trial and error—to reach our goals. There are no quick fixes—it takes honest, intelligent effort over a sustained period of time.
My hope is that these posts spark ongoing conversations so that we can learn from one another. Through this dialogue, we can start to contextualize our ideas and challenge our assumptions, and in turn, make real progress on becoming a better leader.