Late to the party, I have become a huge fan of House of Cards. Just like Game of Thrones (of which I’m also a huge fan) HoC deals with the theme of power, and is an expose of what one couple would do to: a) gain (arguably) the most powerful political position in the world and b) retain this power. Murder, manipulation, corruption, lies, cover-ups, abuse of power: these actions are all in a day’s work for Francis and Claire Underwood. From where I sit—intrigued, I might add—they are clearly psychopaths. They are arrogant, callous people who are defined by their lack of empathy. They feel no guilt and experience little remorse (if any) for the people they use as pawns in their relentless pursuit of power; and while they skate on the thin edge of the wedge from a legal perspective (murder notwithstanding) they are people without a moral compass, who possess no ethics, and no sense of right or wrong from a civilised society perspective. They thrive in the thrust and parry world that is politics.
[bctt tweet=”Power doesn’t magically make someone a better person if they were shits and arseholes without it.” username=”dileeshus”]
While their character traits have been amplified for the sake of the story, the reason I am intrigued by HoC—and Game of Thrones—is that the characters are essentially real. Over the years, I have met many a psychopath who occupies the corner office. In government (both state and federal, and where I’ve worked in some capacity on and off since my early twenties) if you haven’t been managed by a psychopath—or the psychopath’s first cousin once removed, the narcissist—you have been very lucky. For some reason, psychopaths and narcissists do really well in government departments. Of course, most aren’t easy to spot. They seem amenable until they are cornered. They cover their tracks well, and blend in, able to mimic the required social mores. But there’s that uncomfortable feeling one has dealing with them—or encountering them in your travels—that something isn’t quite right. Often it’s the decisions they make—risky and self-interested—that raise questions, particularly when colleagues or subordinates are actively discouraged not to challenge via threats or verbal abuse. Or dismissals. Heads on spikes is powerful messaging.
Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy. ~ Norman Schwarzkopf
Which brings me to the point of this post. In times of chaos (which is most government departments these days given the tight fiscal environment and massive reductions in staff), opportunists come out of the woodwork and manoeuvre their way into positions of power. Many of these opportunists—if not most—have neither the capability nor the character to be managing people. Yet, these “leaders” make damaging decisions that affect the lives of the people they manage, if not in the short term, certainly in the long term. From a personal perspective, I am still trying to recover from an arbitrary decision made in 2011 by a manager I “inherited” who, while acting legally, did not act ethically or with integrity. This man was not a psychopath, but he was of dubious character. And that’s the thing: power amplifies a person’s weaknesses and weak spots. Power doesn’t magically make someone a better person if they were shits and arseholes without it.
So when this post of about ethics from Harvard Business Review crossed my path, I read it with interest. Mark Chussil, the author, teaches a class on strategic controls and asked his class about unethical actions they’d be likely to take:
In a recent class we talked about less-than-virtuous actions we’ve seen in business. Fraudulent accounting that wiped out jobs and investors. Efficient operations that inflict misery on food animals. Shortcuts and cover-ups that cost people their lives. It’s easy to create a long list and it’s hard not to be depressed by it.
I asked my students: who, among you, aspires to take such actions? They were appalled, of course. Then I mentioned that the real-life people who actually took those actions were once just like them. They were young; they were eager; they wanted to do fine things. And yet.
The room was very quiet.
Life offers slippery slopes. Experiments and experience show that people resist leaping from innocence to evil, but they can be lured into it one innocuous step at a time. Cheat just a little; you can fix it later. Cut a corner, stretch a truth, keep a mouth shut.
He goes on to say that it is very easy to take actions that don’t accord or align with our personal values or beliefs because we can rationalise them away, kind of like having a big slab of cheesecake when you are trying to lose weight. We tell ourselves that one piece won’t hurt, that we’ll exercise it off, or reduce our calories the next day to compensate. The the next thing you know, you’ve eaten an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Ice Cream and have gained 10 kilograms and have not gone for a run in months…! (Not true in my case. Chocolate almonds are my weapons of choice.) Slippery slope indeed.
Chussil advises that one way to minimise (but not eliminate) this risk is to write a list: a list of actions that we will not take. A list of unethical things we would never do. We forget that the things we don’t do define us as much as what we do do:
Writing a list of things you won’t do doesn’t shield you from temptation. It doesn’t guarantee you won’t do something you’ll regret later. It doesn’t make you rich or famous; you don’t get credit for not doing something. It doesn’t resolve questions about lesser evils. Who would blame Jean Valjean, the thief-star of Les Misérables, for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his child? There’s a whole musical that says he did the right thing.
The writing of a list of Unethical Things I will Never Do resonated with me. I have rules of thumb in my head, but I have not written them down. As they say in the classics: there is no time like the present, so here’s my list:
Things I Will Never Do
Support a decision I believe to be wrong
Human beings are fascinating. We can talk themselves into doing practically anything. Jump out of a plane? Swimming with sharks? Dive into sinkholes? Invest in dodgy hedge funds? Run off with a Nigerian prince? Sure! Of course! Why not? Once we’ve made a decision, we feel very uncomfortable going against this decision even if we know it’s not right in our gut. It comes under the umbrella of cognitive dissonance, and it’s a powerful psychological phenomena. And all sorts of stuff—repercussions we could never anticipate or imagine—happens because of bad decisions.
(As an aside, many of the decisions we make—both good and bad—are based on logical fallacies. Here’s a list of the most common ones. You don’t believe everything you see or hear, so why do you believe everything you think? You really shouldn’t, you know.)
I suffer from the opposite of cognitive dissonance… if I hear or know about a decision that is wrong, I have to say something. I can’t not. It’s like I have a ball of tightly wound words that are thrown from my solar plexus with a force that I can’t stop. It’s like I have a Tourette’s form of cognitive consonance. It’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, and it’s got to do with being able to sleep well at night. I’d much rather speak up about a poor decision and maybe, just maybe, stop something wrong or dumb or dangerous happening, than sit idly by and watch chaos or damage rear its ugly, Medusa-like head.
Coerce people into doing things they are uncomfortable with
If there’s one thing I can’t abide it’s people in power using their power to make their underlings do things they are uncomfortable with. Or someone without power using someone else’s power to make their underlings do things they are uncomfortable with. How is that effective? Or respectful? Or even legitimate? Sure, you’ll get your wins or outcomes in the short-term, but all you’ll earn in the long-term is the dislike and distrust of the people around you. Instead, how about give people agency, give them a choice. Give them an out.
Telling someone to “just do it because I said”, or “do this because someone else above me wants it” is just not cool.
And in case you haven’t noticed, slavery has been illegal for at least 200 years.
Jump on bandwagons, even if they are popular
There’s a saying that goes something along the lines of: even if 10,000 people agree with it… a dumb idea is still a dumb idea. In these times, I would go further and say that even if 1,000 people agree with it… a dangerous idea is still a dangerous idea. You see it all the time in the media, don’t you? People jumping on all kinds of bandwagons because it’s popular to do so. And give the person spouting the dumb (or dangerous) idea a bit of power or celebrity or infamy or all three, and you have a perfect storm. I’m not saying, of course, that all bandwagons are dumb or dangerous, but the brain should be engaged before attempting to jump on aforementioned bandwagon. Things go rapidly pear-shaped when people jump first, ask questions later… if at all.
Which leads me to me next point.
Be silent, even when it’s a safer option
Y’all know about groupthink, right? You’re in a meeting. A point is raised that you know is wrong or dumb (or dangerous) but because no one speaks up about it. You don’t want to look like a dick, so you stay quiet. Groupthink is the pressure caused by social situations to comply with group mores. Even when you know group mores are wrong or dumb (or dangerous). I get why you don’t want to speak up when others don’t. I get that it’s uncomfortable. I get that in dangerous times, truth is a rebellious act. I get that it’s often safer to stay quiet.
But safer for whom?
Tell that to the Challenger crew who lost their lives because engineers wouldn’t speak up about something as trivial as O rings. Tell that to the millions of Jews and their sympathisers who were slaughtered because of Hitler’s despicable regime. Tell that to the teenager who takes his or her life because they are bullied every day at school. Tell that to the people who lost their lives because they happened to be driving over a dodgy bridge. Or drinking on a balcony that collapsed. Or flying in a plane that crashed.
Speaking up may save someone’s life.
Do a job I am not equipped to do
I have seen it everyday for the almost 40 years I’ve been working: people getting paid a squid load of cash to do a job that they have not the skills, experience, knowledge, qualifications nor aptitude to do. I call this the Right Time Phenomenon, when someone—who is not the right person for the job—is, however, in the right place at the right time to take advantage of a situation. Look, I get that money has a powerful pull. Who’s going to knock back a promotion with a significant increase in salary? And I get that sometimes you have to fake it until you’ve made it—hell, I’ve done that a few times BUT (and it’s a big but) I would never take on a job that I was not equipped to do.
Because if you do… that, my friend, is fraud.
And I’ve seen the havoc that fraud wreaks. And by the way, I’ll give you a hot tip: everyone knows. Everyone knows that you are getting a squid load of cash for doing a job that you aren’t able to do. It may happen later rather than sooner, but it will come back to bite you on the arse.
As an antithesis to the ruthless machinations of the Underwoods, check out Jane Hutcheon’s interview with Kon Karapanagiotidis. He is saving the world, literally one refugee at a time. A truly wonderful man.
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