Finding Our Way Through the Gray

A Project Management Article by Michelle LaBrosse, PMP®, CEO, Cheetah Learning LLC (PMI® REP)

In today’s society people are very sensitive to ethical conduct in business, and the reason is because we’ve been lost in a gray area where right and wrong are muddled behind corporate agendas. Bloomberg’s Businessweek’s article, Wall Streets’ Economic Crimes Against Humanity reveals just how lost in the gray we are. In this article, the authors define what led up to the mortgage crisis as a “…widespread abrogation of individual moral judgment.”

So how does an entire industry of professionals who are smart, dedicated, and most likely good individuals, allow for the financial ruin of millions of lives in the form of bankruptcies and loss of pensions? It comes down to the classic debate – are humans inherently good or evil?

If you’re on John Locke’s side, you think that mankind is fundamentally good when left to its own devices. If you’re on the Thomas Hobbes side of the debate, you lean more towards believing that people are selfish and evil, with self-interest guiding most of their decisions.

While I lean more towards Locke’s sentiments, I think that the biggest problem we face is disassociation. If “good” people are able to disassociate themselves from the results of their actions, they will have no feelings of wrongdoing, and therefore can justify their actions. This is where the ethical “gray area” comes in. When a corporation’s actions lead to corporate gain at the expense of the general populace’s loss, you need to look at the ethics behind it all.

We have seen a rise in corporate scandals in recent years. According to CNN Money, the number of fraud cases investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission jumped 41 percent in the last three years, which resulted in tens of million of dollars in fines to settle the charges. The mentality of “success at all costs” has become so entrenched in companies, particular publicly traded companies, that professionals are breaching their own moral codes in order to be financially successful.

Because of this murky gray area of “good” versus “evil” and “accountability” versus “disassociation,” it is crucial for professionals in every level of business be trained in the practices of ethics, transparency, and accountability.

Project Management and Ethics

The Project Management Institute (PMI) provides a simple ethics code of conduct guidance, and suggests that a project manager’s first step at being ethical is in accepting responsibility for decisions and consequences. This is the first step in breaking the dissociation affliction that leads to good people practicing unethical behavior.

PMI goes further by saying the PMs need to respect others, be honest in communication, listen and provide feedback in an objective manner, and be fair and transparent in decision making.

The thing about ethics is that they’re hard to measure. As project managers, we want to measure as much as we can – it’s in our DNA. But how do you measure something so intangible as being ethical?

PMI recognizes this difficulty and therefore has created two codes of conduct: Aspirational and Mandatory Conduct.  While Mandatory standards establish firm requirements that can lead to disciplinary action if not followed, Aspirational conduct is the more immeasurable standard that project management practitioners should strive to uphold.

If you’ve seen the movie “Office Space,” think back to the scene when Jennifer Aniston’s character is working at a restaurant called Chotskies. At Chotskies, management required you to wear a certain amount of “flair” – which are these big buttons that are supposed to exemplify your personality. Her character makes a big scene because she only wants to wear the minimum required buttons and doesn’t understand why her boss is upset about that.

While the scene is amusing and slightly mocking towards excessive “flair,” what it also shows is that successful employees who are moving up in the Chotskies restaurant are wearing more than the minimum, because it’s not about maintaining status quo to them, it’s about a lifestyle.

In real life the people who go above and beyond what is required are the ones that succeed. So put on your ethical flair buttons PMs! The more the better. If you do the bare minimum (just the mandatory) it will be transparent to anyone who works with you.

PMI®’s Role Delineation Study & Exam Changes

In August of 2011 PMI changed approximately 30% of the PMP® exam based on updates to the professional role of a PMP® found by PMI’s Role Delineation Study (RDS).  One of the biggest changes in the exam was the Professional and Social Responsibility content area (Domain 6) was to be tested in every domain rather than as a separate domain on the examination.  This change mean that PMI’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct should be viewed as integrated into the day-to-day role of project managers.

Is it any coincidence that this RDS study came about in 2011, just two years after Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scam was uncovered? And just three years after the 2007 mortgage crisis began hitting the economy with the brutal reality that we had been duped? In this tough economy people wanted to know how we are going to improve the ethical standards, accountability and transparency in business. PMI’s RDS answered that question.

More than 3,000 PMPs from 97 countries contributed to the RDS. These PMPs were responsible for bringing their perspective on how the profession is evolving as far as knowledge, skills, and abilities.

And what did this mean for PMP exam candidates? Professionals taking the PMP exam after August 2011 had to be prepared to answer ethical questions that demonstrated their understanding of how to live within the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct in their daily work as a PM.

What this change did is switch the thinking for exam takers. Rather than viewing the ethics questions as a separate section, they now had to view them as part of every section and inseparably from each domain. This adaptation brings home the importance that ethical standards have on today’s society. We don’t want to put up with the bare minimum anymore. We want our project managers accountable, transparent, and ethical in everything that they do, day in and day out.

Above and Beyond

Beyond what PMI has already done with the exam to highlight the importance of ethical standards, what can be done to ensure that those you work with are living up to not just the mandatory, but aspirational standards of conduct? It all starts with you.

As a leader in the PM profession, others look up to you as for leadership and example setting. Make sure you are setting the right tone in your place of work. You can do this by being open and honest, even when it’s hard and may make you look bad. This also means holding yourself to the highest ethical standards in each and every situation, not just when it’s convenient.

Beyond leading by example, you can convey what’s expected of those you work with via written guidelines. While PMI offers a fantastic Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, sometimes it can help to have guidelines that are more specific to your particular company or industry.

Say for instance that you work in a consulting company, and every so often in your consulting you come across proprietary information within the company you’re consulting as a course of business.  In this specific situation, what protocol can your company decide on that makes it easy for employees to adhere to ethical standards?

Once you have your code of ethics in place, how will this be enforced? One of the most important aspects of having a code of ethics is implementing a safe and effective way for people to report breaches in the code. If people feel like their whistle blowing might be overlooked, discouraged, or even result in their termination, they most likely will hesitate to report a questionable issue that they see.

Ensure that your reporting system is utilizing an objective third party who does not have any influence over the job security of the employees.

Whether you convey your ethical standards by example, in writing, or better yet by doing both, make sure that you make ethics a clear priority in your organization. This means that you will not sacrifice ethical behavior in favor of other business initiatives such as increasing profits, closing a deal, or being the top in your industry. When you convey this message very clearly, people will match their priorities to that of the organizations and make sure the ethical behavior is the only way to conduct business.

Get out of the Gray!

Do you want to get more involved in the ongoing conversation surrounding project management and ethics? Join PMI’s Ethics in Project Management Community of Practice. In this community you can join members to further examine topics such as the role of ethics in project management, and the relationship of ethics in project management to other industries, interest, or knowledge areas. Become apart of the ethical movement and get out of the gray today!

About the Author

Michelle LaBrosse, PMP®, CEO, Cheetah Learning LLC (PMI® REP)

CheetahLearningMichelle LaBrosse, PMP, is an entrepreneurial powerhouse with a penchant for making success easy, fun and fast.  She is the founder of Cheetah Learning, the author of the Cheetah Success Series, and a prolific blogger whose mission is to bring Project Management to the masses.

Cheetah Learning is a virtual company with 100 employees, contractors, and licensees worldwide. To date, more than 30,000 people have become “Cheetahs” using Cheetah Learning’s innovative Project Management and accelerated learning techniques.  

Recently honored by the Project Management Institute (PMI®), Cheetah Learning was named Professional Development Provider of the Year at the 2008 PMI® Global Congress.  A dynamic keynote speaker and industry thought leader, Michelle was previously recognized by PMI as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the world.

Michelle’s articles have appeared in over 100 publications and web sites around the world. Her monthly column, the Know How Network is carried by over 400 publications, and her monthly newsletter goes out to more than 50,000 people.  

She is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Manager’s (OPM) program and also holds engineering degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Dayton.

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