The importance of ethical decision making

by David Yardley / 10/9/2017
(IT consultant with over twenty years’ experience working in the IT industry.)

Peter F.  Drucker, the writer, professor and management consultant, hailed by Business Week as ‘the man who invented management’, once said, ‘whatever a manager does, he does through decision-making’.

The damaging media headlines caused by unethical behaviour within business should therefore be a concern for all managers regardless of their grade or experience. High levels of integrity are now expected from all business professionals, and project managers in particular, will need to ensure they are equipped with the skills so they are capable of making ethical decisions.

What is an ethical decision?

Existing decision-making processes typically follow a logical process.  A number of alternative options are identified, an evaluation of the potential outcomes is performed and the most suitable option is selected. This process will increase the likelihood of making a good decision, but not necessarily, of making an ethical decision.

The difference is, of course, that ethical decision-making requires individuals with the power to make decisions to consider the problem from an ethical perspective rather than from purely a management perspective. The events surrounding the Challenger space shuttle disaster unfortunately remain a stark reminder of what can happen when individuals become ‘ethically blind’.

What does being ethical mean?

Ethics is the practice of making a principled choice between right and wrong. It is concerned with how people ought to act, not how they do act. Ethics defines who we are and how we behave. As individuals we all possess an innate sense of right and wrong, our ‘moral compass’ in other words, and we use this to assess situations and events we encounter during our lives.

Even when the right course of action is clear, real-world competitive pressures can cause project managers to make decisions that have damaging consequences for some or all of the stakeholders involved. Being ethical will ultimately mean having the skills and moral courage to challenge existing norms and act in an ethical manner.

The need for moral courage, whilst sounding a little dramatic, will nevertheless be important. Ethical decisions may well produce outcomes that others will find hard to accept or understand. Indeed, for those who choose to act ethically in spite of internal or external pressures to do otherwise, their only consolation might be that it was the right thing to do.

The ethical project manager

Whilst the focus on business ethics remains largely on bribery and anti-competitive behaviour, such events are unlikely to arise on the average project. There are many other ethical situations however, that are likely to pose an equal or greater threat to project managers as ethical risks unlike other risk types, are often difficult to spot.

Given that the consequences of actual or even perceived unethical behaviour can be severe, failing to understand the importance of ethics will place project managers in a potentially dangerous position. Loss of professional reputation, kudos or employment are all potential outcomes that await project managers who are deemed to have acted unethically by others. If there is one compelling reason for project managers to understand the importance of ethical decision-making, it is this.

Of course, project managers do not wake up one day and decide to be unethical; if they did they would not last very long in a profession where standards are high and client expectations are even higher. It is more than likely that, in the absence of proper ethical training, project managers do not recognize their actions as being unethical.

Making an ethical decision

Understanding the many ethical theories and principles that abound is a laudable achievement. However, if project managers are to fully embrace and adopt ethics they will need to apply these in a practical way so that decisions they make are morally defensible and above reproach. In other words, being ethical means not just being capable of making an ethical decision, but also being willing to make an ethical decision.

Whilst there are many factors that will influence an individual’s ability to make an ethical decision, the following the set of questions will at least enable project managers to consider situations from an ethical perspective.

  • In whose interests am I acting? My own, my team’s, my employer’s or my customer’s?
  • To whom am I loyal as an individual and as an employee?
  • Will my action place me under any form of obligation to another person?
  • Does the decision benefit me as an individual in any way?
  • Will I be breaking a promise by choosing this course of action?
  • Will others be harmed by my actions?
  • Will others benefit from my actions?
  • Whose rights do I need to consider in this situation?
  • Will my actions violate the rights of individuals as a result of my actions?
  • What kind of person would I be if I were to choose this particular course of action? Would it make me a dishonest person?
  • Is there anyone from whom I would like to hide the action?
  • Does this action betray a trust?
  • Does this action create or avoid the possibility of a conflict of interest?
  • Will my actions violate confidentiality or privacy?
  • Would my actions be viewed as role model behaviour?
  • Would I be prepared to recommend the same course of action to another project manager in the same situation (could it become a ‘universal law’ or best practice within the project management profession)?

Ethics and project management excellence

Project management is a complex and challenging, but necessary activity within business, and as such, requires practitioners to possess a diverse range of skills. Whilst success can never be guaranteed, one thing is certain, failing to understand the importance of ethical decision-making can have serious consequences for project managers.

The successful project manager will be the one who is not only aware of ethical values such as trust, honesty, fairness, confidentiality and accountability, but actively uses them to make morally-defensible decisions. How well the project management community responds to this challenge will be of paramount importance if it is to achieve professional excellence.