You have to admit, the satisfaction that comes with winning is so sweet. I can’t imagine too many disagreeing with me on that point. But I have also heard, “It’s not a matter of winning or losing; it is how you play the game.” I think that is where I lose a percentage of you. If you are like me, I love winning and loathe the idea of losing. I can remember a time when I was running a 5K with the family and my daughter was dragging along in the back of the pack. I slowed down to give her some motivation, but she wasn’t interested. Finally, after getting her to join us, she sped up to finish ahead of us all with a little over 200 yards to go. So, I sprinted to catch her and, right at the finish line, I cut in front of her (I may have bumped her, slightly) to beat her across the line to the dissatisfaction and jeers of the crowd.
I heard, “Boo!”
And I heard, ” Bad Dad!”
And, “That was a dirty move!”
I could have let her win. But I thought she didn’t deserve to with such a bad attitude. The crowd let me have it for a few minutes longer. I know it looked bad. It is something that I have had to live with. Every once in a while, it comes up. Sadly, I’ve been painted as a cheater.
Businesses operate like this on a regular. And certainly, individual leaders, play an influential role in taking these “micro-actions” to secure wins at the price of the company or worse yet, at the sacrifice of a peer. Influential because it gets echoed by peers or proteges, especially when they sense reward results from it. But also influential because it is not penalized. Normally, it’s an incentive, a promotion, or just simply preventing an L from being attached to their name that becomes the driver of the slight. I’m pretty sure they don’t intend to overtly harm the business or a colleague. But it’s still a reckless, intentional behavior that most haven’t quite contemplated as an ethical dilemma. So, when do the principles of ethics come into play for you? Does it ever? If not, do you realize what are you modeling for those that are curiously following you? If shortcuts, overstating, miscounting, hiding, or “finessing” become a regular activity, then it is basically your standard work to guarantee you win each time. That’s when ethic’s black-and-white takes on a grayish hue.
Ethics is a branch of philosophy that “involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior”.
The problem with shortcuts is that they have to be backed up with more shortcuts. Unchecked point-shaving today proves the work can’t be done tomorrow under those same conditions without finessing the books. And if left unchecked, performance expectations shift, and senior management is looking for a repeat. So, that means you have to keep shaving. Unfortunately with winning, there also has to be a loser. And, especially with shaving time, money, or any other statistical metric, you force an unsuspecting someone to take an L. That’s when ethics should pull at your heartstrings. When it doesn’t, then it becomes far more deliberate, much like when Bonds, McGuire, and Sosa undercut the entire MLB by forcing homerun asterisks into the Hall of Records. So now the entire MLB suffers because of these bad actors. It may not look like it on the surface, but these micro-actions have a compounding effect on the business’ health long-term.
The topic of ethics is important to discuss openly and especially when you onboard new leaders. It is hard to police. But, you have to be willing to call it out when you see it. Because it is intentional and done under the table, it won’t always be obvious in the moment. Your intuition will tell you that things aren’t adding up. Examples of undercutting happen in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. It can come in the form of misrepresenting completed work, overstating performance metrics, understating values, overspending company funds, skipping a standard work procedure, bypassing a person for a job based on non-performance or non-leadership factors, or pressuring employees to “get it done no matter what.” These can all be evaluated against an ethical standard.
As a leader, you have to be aware of the long-term effects of playing a game of win at all costs. Your team, and especially your proteges are watching your actions. The company then enters an ambiguous ethical space as they scrutinize the previous week’s, month’s, or year’s data to a new period’s bar. Unfortunately, that bar now includes rampant and unaccounted for shaving with inadequate variables that only lead to questions. Leaders have a serious responsibility here. And since there is no Ethics Police, you have to protect the company as well as other leaders from this ill-matic activity. It’s the same in the game of golf, there’s no play-by-play referee so you have a responsibility to protect the entire field by your ethical play. By soberly taking an L in a certain instance, the company wins–well, at least secures a moral victory. But just think if all leaders are point-shaving in the same space-and-time to ward off a loss under their watch. You can only imagine the number of losses the company is taking at the price of some fabricated wins. The undercutting then becomes incestuous with misplaced values and under or over-reported activity. This kind of thing robs the business of understanding how it actually performs. In fact, you introduce artificial markers in the historical performance metrics that are reference points for future spending, costs, and recruiting. Large companies feel this ripple but after a bit of a delay and smaller companies feel it instantly. This all happens when leaders take a seemingly innocuous cut off the top for a near-sighted and very individual victory.
So when do ethics matter for you? Is it part of your everyday playbook? When does the subject of ethics come up in your organization or team? Is it only after it has been compromised? Are you willing to take an L and own it, in order for the company to be better situated? Does your team know that you are willing to take the L? Do you realize this is cheating? Do they? I will just offer this: the worst word you can call an athlete who, by the way, operates holistically on ethical standards, is a “cheater.” Would you mind being branded as a cheater in your organization?