Career decisions are often value judgments, whether they are day-to-day decisions about managing people or your own work-life decisions that can make or break a promotion or even threaten your job security. Some decisions are bound to be unpopular with at least someone in your institution, family or group of friends.
The pressure to make popular decisions is strong. I’ve found over the years that doing the right thing is a long-term winning strategy even when short-term expediencies tempt us.
Doing the right thing has two parts: Doing, and the right thing. A common disease that I see along the entire reporting chain from executives to coders is abdication. We feel that no one can blame us for a decision we don’t make.
Abdication takes many forms. I recently watched an executive assistant defend the CEO from having to consider his reports’ input about urgent problems. The assistant didn’t want to waste his valuable time on that. What a tragedy to hide problems from the company’s most powerful problem-solver. Decisions entail value judgments, and no judgment is bad judgment.
Another sinister form of abdication is empowerment. A study at Rutgers (of GM, Honeywell, Pitney-Bowes, AT&T, and DuPont: see Ronald E. Yates, “Employee Empowerment Efforts Found to be Weak,” Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1995) found that empowerment distributes autonomy ineffectively.
Empowerment breaks down trust networks and increases hierarchy. The buck should stop with the boss.
That doesn’t mean that the boss dictates work, but it does mean making the tough decisions when called upon. The IEEE has a code of ethics and its very first stipulation is that you accept responsibility in making these decisions.
Empowerment isn’t what you do to become agile, because its very presence presumes haves and have-nots with respect to power. Good self-organization removes the very need for empowerment.
Then there is the second half of Doing the Right Thing: the issue of right. I hear many arguments about whether right means right for ROI or right for the employees or right for the world as a whole. It’s important to focus on overall value. Any manager and any employee should be able to answer to what they value. Many enterprises (even the IEEE) try to enumerate their values, perhaps just in case someone happens to forget one.
It’s easy to oversimplify these issues, as any human system is a complex system. But that doesn’t stop you from doing the right thing. Most of “the right thing” is common sense—but it is more fluid than may appear at first glance.
The theologian James P. Carse describes life as a series of "Finite and Infinite Games" (Ballantine, 1987). A finite game seeks to establish a winner and a loser, the purpose being that the winner receives the accolades of an audience. Finite games have fixed rules designed to bring the game to an end and to define the criteria for winning, for achieving value. Chess, football, getting a university degree, and promotions are finite games.
But value is more complex than this. In an infinite game, the goal is to keep playing the game. There are rules and value propositions, but there are rules for changing the rules. Think Calvinball. Right is about the social process that defines it.
Every finite game is played in the context of an infinite game. Carse defines evil as playing an infinite game as though it were a finite game. There is only one infinite game. It’s sometimes called career. It’s also called life.