Social networking means that that our actions are going to more subject to scrutiny than ever before. Although we shouldn’t try to be a good person just because someone is watching, it makes the challenge and opportunity of goodness more acute and more present in the everyday moments of truth that we face.
In the play, Glengarry Glen Ross, (also a stunning movie, with cataclysmic performances from Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey amongst others) a group of tired real estate agents scramble all over eachother and the rest of the world, like crabs in a barrel, to earn that little bit of extra cash. It is a forensic study of the way basically good people are worn down into amoral vessels by an exploitative system and their own incremental acquiescence to it.
If ever there was a time when we needed to take a cold, hard look into our own fine-grained ethical choices, within a system that may involuntarily serve to degrade them, it is now. We are watching a unique phenomenon in our time – it isn’t that we are suddenly discovering that leaders, politicians, media moguls and bosses, may not be good just because they are rich and powerful. We had that wool pulled from our eyes long ago. It is more that the nature and pace of social media are so imminent that any wrongdoing is exposed immediately and perpetually. There is simply no-where to hide anymore. I regularly remind my fourteen-year-old son that whatever he does in life, his current social media streams will act as a permanent record of his personality and character. The nature of our public and private selves is irredeemably blurred. If we do not behave well, or we are not well thought of, people will know.
Yet perhaps this is a red herring; do we need people to be watching in order to make better choices in the difficult situations in which we find ourselves? It was ex-Barclays boss Bob Diamond who said famously that ‘culture is what people do when no-one is watching’. Perhaps we are being given a nudge to remember that it may be necessary, for our own wellbeing, to bear this in mind. After all, the one thing that pervades the Glengarry Glen Ross set isn’t wealth, as the characters might hope; it is misery.
Things are also trickier because the blurring of our online and embodied personalities is only part of a trend that is increasingly the complexity of the situations and roles in which we find ourselves. Boundaries are being blurred everywhere, between customers and suppliers, employers and partners, sectors and markets, communities and governments. In my own life I act as an employer, partner, supplier, associate, adjunct faculty, counsellor, customer, sometimes all at once. Being ‘good’, ethically sound and responsible in the moment, considering all of these roles, is not straightforward.
The theme here is vital and practical: if we are all on stage, now, in an ever more complex play, then only if we are really sound in ourselves, and in our relationships, can we hope to do well for our communities, businesses and ourselves. ‘People buy from people’, as my Dad used to say. Reputation is more important, and more fragile than ever.
So it isn’t for PR purposes that we must consider how we are seen making good quality decisions in challenging circumstances – it is because this is the only way we can protect our standing and maintain quality organisations which have customers who want to stay with them.
This isn’t about ‘we must be good’ – it is about ‘how to be good?’ So if you get offered a freebie, or asked to overlook a small misdemeanour, or invited to fiddle the Libor rate, or that you simply know it is happening, how do you respond – what’s the least you can do?
I remember, when I taking my German O-level, of which all I remember is how to say Black Forest Cake with whipped cream (Schwarzwaldenkirchentorte mit Schlagsahne!), I had a moment’s break from the question paper, and looked around me. I had a double take: there was a friend of mine, a boy, sitting behind me with the text book on his lap. He looked at me and shrugged, sheepishly. If he had been caught, all of us would have been disqualified. In fact I seem to remember that such an offence would have meant we would have been disqualified for all of our exams that year, as it undermined the credibility of the School. I turned a blind eye and continued working. He failed. I got a ‘C’. What would you have done? And was potential disqualification really the issue here? Even now, part of me wonders if it may undermine my integrity.
This story (now in the public domain!) exemplifies the nature of our choices. It is an example, hopefully distant enough that there is not too much risk of comeback, of what may undermine us in the long run, especially if we don’t spot and deal with the pattern as it unfolds. Very few of the major moral disasters we hear about happen overnight. MPs inflated expenses, fiddled interest rates, constructive dismissals, cheated exams, are always part of an evolved, incremental system, where either ‘everybody was doing it’, or at least ‘everyone knew about it’.
So as a thought experiment – here a couple of current moral dilemmas of mine. With both, my question is, what would you do?
1. I am working with a client on a leadership programme. The programme has been a bit ‘thrown together’ by a predecessor. I ran a module of it with a colleague, which went very well. But the rest of the programme has received a more lukewarm response, because the participants feel it isn’t tailor-made enough for them. Sometimes I think they really should cancel rest of the modules, and put the substantial saving into coaching or action learning, as this is more what the participants now need. (I wouldn’t be involved in this as they have a good resource of local coaches and facilitators). But because our module went down well, they have asked us to design the rest of the programme, as group modules. I know we could do a ‘good enough’ job for the participants, but I am not convinced this is really what they need. How do I know my judgement is sound in this and not tainted by my own interests, or indeed my wariness of them?
2. I have been working with the UK Board of a Global FMCG company. The Chief Executive (C.E.) is about to move on to pastures new. I am coaching the Finance Director (F.D.). He is tearing his hair out. He puts the dilemma like this: the C.E. wants the turnover figures to look as good as possible, because he wants to shown he has grown market share, as his ‘legacy’. “But”, he says, ”Our factory output is struggling due to a reorganisation of plant. This means we need to outsource production, which is unprofitable. This means the more we sell, the less money we make”. Yet the C.E., he says, continues to be driving them to sell more. They wonder if the CE has simply lost the plot. Either that or he is obsessed with his own reputation. Every time they challenge him on it, he says they are missing the point. But he is leaving, and the rest of the Board are very aware they may well be left behind to pick up the pieces. At least, this is the F.D.’s partial take on it. Is his view of the C.E. sound? Should this be challenged, or should I support him to challenge the C.E.? Should he blow the whistle? And if the C.E. won’t be challenged, could this just cost him his job?
Being good in these situations isn’t a simple on/off switch. It is a matter of staying with discomfort and uncertainty, for a lot longer than we humans are designed to stand. How do we learn to do this better?
There’s a training game we play with teams sometimes, which re-creates some of the conditions of complex and ambiguous systems of modern world of work. Solving the problem of this system is a fascinating, hard grind of making mistakes with unforeseen consequences, trying to learn from them, keeping in relationship with others, even though the nature of the problem is always changing. It is about balancing the apparently contradictory disciplines of listening hard with leading decisively, emotional presence with conceptual acuity. There is one way that teams can make it easier for themselves. They can cheat. Some groups do.
What loss have they had by this that they haven’t yet seen?