Management is about commitment, execution, and follow-through. Did you act? Good. Did it work? Do it again. It didn’t? Do something else. Above all, keep doing things; keep taking action.
I teach a course in strategic controls at the University of Portland. In a recent class we talked about less-than-virtuous actions we’ve seen in business. Fraudulent accounting that wiped out jobs and investors. Efficient operations that inflict misery on food animals. Shortcuts and cover-ups that cost people their lives. It’s easy to create a long list and it’s hard not to be depressed by it.
I asked my students: who, among you, aspires to take such actions? They were appalled, of course. Then I mentioned that the real-life people who actually took those actions were once just like them. They were young; they were eager; they wanted to do fine things. And yet.
The room was very quiet.
Life offers slippery slopes. Experiments and experience show that people resist leaping from innocence to evil, but they can be lured into it one innocuous step at a time. Cheat just a little; you can fix it later. Cut a corner, stretch a truth, keep a mouth shut.
HBS Professor Max Bazerman talks about slippery slopes in his book The Power of Noticing. A major fraud, for example, can begin as a minor shortfall that a fund manager or auditor decides (or is convinced) to hide. Future success will replenish the funds, no problem. But when future success doesn’t come, the deceit grows harder to hide even as it gets more awful to admit.
My main job is consulting: business war games, strategy simulations, workshops on strategy. I’ve worked in many industries around the world. Long ago, I realized that I disapprove of a particular industry. Its name doesn’t matter. What matters is that, like everyone else, I want to live in harmony with my beliefs and values. I decided that I would neither solicit nor accept business from companies in that industry.
The issue came up several times over the years, and when it did, I did what I’d told myself I would. It was easy, like deciding in advance not to order fettuccine Alfredo if I go into an Italian restaurant while I’m on a diet.
Then my business turned down. A company from the industry asked me to run a war game for them. I wanted the money. I rationalized that I’d only be rearranging market shares, I wouldn’t be expanding the market. I figured that refusing to take the job wouldn’t prevent the job from being done by someone else. I sent them the proposal they requested.
I didn’t get the project … and I felt relieved. But I knew I’d feel that way even before I sent the proposal, and I’d sent it anyway. I’d rationalized that too. Why agonize over the tough questions when I might not even get the project? One innocuous step at a time.
I feel embarrassed that I submitted the proposal. But I’m lucky. It would’ve been worse if I’d gotten and done the project. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson discuss cognitive dissonance, in which people feel great distress when they see that they’d behaved at odds with their beliefs and values. Maryam Kouchaki (the Kellogg School) and Francesca Gino (HBS) found “unethical amnesia” in their studies on over 2,100 participants. They suggest that the distress makes it harder to remember dissonant behavior and thus easier to repeat it.
I shared the proposal story with my students, then I suggested that they each write a list. Not as an assignment, not to share, just for themselves. Write a list of actions you will not take. Re-read it from time to time.
Writing a list of things you won’t do doesn’t shield you from temptation. It doesn’t guarantee you won’t do something you’ll regret later. It doesn’t make you rich or famous; you don’t get credit for not doing something. It doesn’t resolve questions about lesser evils. Who would blame Jean Valjean, the thief-star of Les Misérables, for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his child? There’s a whole musical that says he did the right thing.
But your list just might help you recognize where your slippery slope begins.
People want to make a positive difference. Here’s how: do something. Or, don’t.
About the Author
Mark Chussil is the Founder and CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc. He has conducted business war games, taught strategic thinking, and written strategy simulators for Fortune 500 companies around the world.
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