How to Avoid Working against Principle – Wangari Maina

 (when you are being pushed to do things that are of benefit to the company but that are against principle)

Allow me to start with a short real story, edited for purposes of sticking to the subject at hand.

I was once pushed to the wall by some managers to a make a presentation about the way forward for the company. For the most part, the strategies they wanted to apply were minimalist and their results would have been questionable by any forward-thinking businessman. After many hours of arguing, agreeing, and reconstructing ideas, we prepared the presentation together, agreed that it was good for management and then we retired for the night, ready to make our presentation the next morning to senior management.

The next morning, having rehearsed my pitch, I was confident that we had a good thing going. Five minutes into the presentation, I realized that what was on the screen was not what we had closed the previous day with. I had trusted the guys to set up the presentation, earlier before the meeting started they convinced me that there was no reason to go through it. All that they had changed, as they whispered with a smile, were grammatical errors they had noticed, but everything else was the same and they would help me talk through any points I wasn’t confident with.

In the introduction, they had told the senior management team that I had done most of the work, they were proud of me and they were sure I would make a convincing case about the future with the presentation. They had gone on to make the comment that they were sure, if the management team gave their blessing, I would own the presentation and would review it every month for the stipulated deliverables.

Saying that I was upset would be an understatement. I felt like all air had been sucked from the room after someone pulled the rug from under my feet. I gathered myself quickly and proceeded with the presentation telling myself that it was just the beginning slides. I went on with the presentation and when I got to another slide they had changed, I read the statement and asked one of them to extrapolate to the senior management.

It was during one of these moments, where someone else was explaining, that I got a chance to read the body language of most of the people around the table. Then I happened to glance at the schedule that had been prepared for the week-long activities. It all fell into place. The previous evening, the other managers had had a dinner sitting with senior management and the entire presentation had been discussed and some agreements reached. I was simply being set up as a scape goat if the plan failed, and the morning meeting was just a PR exercise.

Rather than go on to the next slide, I remember boldly requesting, “I think the manager has explained it so well and I simply feel incapable of going on with the presentation because the points get a bit more complex as we go on. I’d like to take the second chair on this presentation from this point onwards.” If there was ever a banner written “FOOL” I had it wrapped around me all through that presentation.

A couple of hours later, one of the senior managers called me to his office and asked me what was going on. In the safety of that conversation, I was quite candid, “As you rightly pointed out, I am always well prepared for my presentations. That was not mine and what I had prepared for is not what was on the screen. We both know what happened. Secondly, I am not going to spend the next twelve months being held accountable for someone else’s plans.” The senior manager smiled and allowed me to leave his office.

This is only one of the many diverse situations that come up requiring us to work against principles. In studying the field of ethics, you will come across theories like:

  1. Utilitarianism which suggests that an action is good if its consequences are for the greater good for as many as possible;
  2. Kantianism which simply says that an action is right or wrong depending on whether or not we fulfill our duties
  3. Virtue ethics which tells us to act as a virtuous person would act in our situation (it’s the philosophical version of what-would-Jesus-do (for Christians)).
  4. Contractualism which takes the view that morality is based on what is socially agreed by a community of people

All these theories have their place and can be applied, but each falls short of something and that is why different philosophers came up with different theories.

With hind sight, my experience and information acquired as a transition researcher has indicated that working against principle does not have a one-size-fits-all kind of solution. It calls for a cross breeding of all these theories (especially because they have been there – being practiced and applied – since the creation of man) which raises interesting ways around this issue, while remaining true to your virtues, belief systems and principles.

Starting right is easier than changing. If people in your organization know you as a person of integrity from the word go, there are irreducible minimums that you establish non-verbally. If people know that you keep your records straight, they will think more than twice before they ask you to compromise. However, if you are not consistent, you create opportunities for them to ‘try one more time’. The catchy phrase is usually, “but you did it last time. Just make this the last one.” When you change, make it stick by being consistent.

Apply wisdom and get understanding. A salient message that is underlying the core message of this article is that of wisdom and understanding. Wisdom in this case is to be interpreted as skillfulness while understanding is discernment, mature comprehension, and logical interpretation. Know when to say no. Learn to discern situations. Know what the end game always is. Be a chess player who calculates 6 good moves to counter one bad move. Don’t be the golf player who hits a ball and walks kilometers with a golf club, calculating which move he will make when he finds out where the ball landed.

Playing the fool works. I’ve done it many times but its success hinges on an injured ego. As an example, from the earlier account I shared, I had a very difficult time deciding to sit down and embarrassing myself in front of the very people who could sign my promotion or demotion letter. It was a mental and emotional battle that continued well into the rest of the presentation; but it got me off the hook with my senior managers. They saw the sabotage and because they knew what I was capable of delivering as an efficient/ effective employee, they downplayed the presentation and I did not hear about it again. Even in the monthly reviews.

Playing the fool does not make you a fool. It just gives you a chance to be wiser than the schemers. Ask a certain Israelite king. He behaved like a mad man and it saved him from death at his enemies’ hands.

Out rightly say no. It is true that the most difficult word to say is ‘no’. I wonder who teaches us out of it saying it yet when we were toddlers, it was a favorite syllable. There are circumstances that require you to simply say ‘no’. When someone asks you to falsify travel claims because they can’t account for some money they were given, just say no. Let someone carry their own cross. Be polite about it however, no matter the disgust you have around the issue at hand.

Closet Prosecution, public ruling. Usually, the expectation for you to work against principle is always delivered in secret (closet prosecution). The one requesting is either a direct beneficiary or an emissary of sorts. You need to find a smart way of getting this request to be made in the presence of many others (peers) or people who play a significant role in the organization so that you know whether it is a selfish request or if it is a company ratified decision with full knowledge of its consequences and methodologies (public ruling).

Chances are that you will have an ally who knows there is something wrong with what you are being asked to do. If no one can see what is wrong, you have the opportunity to raise your objections and try to work out other options.

By way of conclusion, let me revisit some advice I got from one of my former bosses. It has helped me in many situations where working against principle seemed to be the only choice on the table. This is what he advised me, “For any tough situation, always ask yourself these four questions – One, Is it legal? Two, what would God have you do in this circumstance? Three, if your child was in the same circumstance, and they took the decision you are leaning to take, would you be proud of them? Four, would your own parents be proud of you if they learnt about the decision you have decided to take?”


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