A conversation with a friend about her discovery of questionable behavior at her company and her ambivalence about it led me to reflect on some negative events in my work life.
Back around 2000, I was consulting for a software startup in the DC area where I lived, at the time. A new president was hired soon after I started, and he asked me to join the company on a full-time basis as head of marketing. It seemed like a good idea on many levels — interesting product, good salary, 10 minutes from my home, and smart colleagues.
After a series of management changes, and the dot com market shakiness, I assumed the role of EVP, leading both engineering and marketing, which is an odd pairing but I am an odd person.
However, mounting pressure from the board to release a product that wasn’t ready led the president to ratchet up pressure on engineering. My lead engineer was a new father and on a two-week paternity leave. He was the only person on staff who understood our interface to the Blackberry communications network our product relied on. I was ordered to get him back into the office to fix a serious problem that had brought down our only major client.
Despite my misgivings, I asked him to come back to work, knowing I was taking the wrong path. I was afraid for my job — the former head of engineering had been fired only a few weeks earlier. The engineer did come in, and he and I determined that the bug was actually a broken Blackberry communication tower, not our software. Blackberry hurried to fix it. Solved.
But still, I knew I had done the wrong thing, and that my great engineer was likely to quit. A few months later, he was gone.
I have reflected on my actions many times in the past twenty years. Only recently I reached a new clarity about his, partly because of something I read. In The Psychology Behind Unethical Behavior, Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg provides a model to understand how people can be pulled into the grey zone of unethical behavior, and past it.
Wedell-Wedellsborg offers three paths.
- Omnipotence — when someone feels entitled, and above the norms of ethics.
- Cultural numbness — when people come to accept bad behavior and look away.
- Justified neglect — when people don’t speak up about ethical breaches because they are afraid to antagonize powerful others.
In my specific case, I was suffering from cultural numbness and justified neglect. After all, the president had fired my immediate successor as head of engineering, and the dotcom collapse meant that there would be plenty of others to fill my role, and it would be especially hard for me to find a new job or return to consulting.
But mostly, I had become culturally numbed by the behavior of the president and his coterie of old friends who he had hired to replace some of the ‘smart colleagues’ that I had gravitated to at the start. Wedell-Wedellsborg points out that cultural numbness is the hardest breakdown in moral leadership to detect. As she puts it, “leaders who have crossed a line never describe this as a clear choice on that path but as wandering down a muddy road, where there they lost track of what was right and wrong”.
I was “morally captured” by the culture of the president and his inner circle, than normalized behaviors I would formerly have rejected. That doesn’t make me better than them, it’s just another sort of moral failure. I should have said no to his request, honestly, and drawn a line in the sand.
I like to believe that today, confronted with a similar dilemma, I would take a different course. And in the years since, I haven’t found myself compromised like that again. But it’s easy to be pulled there, and we have to remain vigilant.