A Strategy For Doing the Right Thing

Our careers are full of moral pitfalls.

Of course life has always been thus. However, in the past mankind had a stronger religious or philosophical underpinning that made these pitfalls, if not easy, at least a bit more navigable. But multiple generations of business and technical degrees that have largely abandoned liberal arts and philosophy, combined with falling participation in traditional religion have left us a bit unmoored.

Don’t get me wrong, it is entirely possible to be moral without these things; it is just that they presented us with road maps that made the proverbial pitfalls easier to see. And so we are left to answer the questions that our careers present us with on our own.

Every decisions seems to cry out for a self-serving analysis. How will this affect me? Will I profit from it? Will it gain me attention from the higher ups? Can I use this as a spring board for promotion?

These are all valid questions. We certainly want to pay attention to the things that can aid us. There is nothing inherently immoral about success, justifiable pride in our work, or peer recognition. These are all part of being human. We crave them at an almost cellular level.

The problem comes when we fail to measure the cost, because rarely are these choices free and clear.

While the above questions come naturally to mind, the following, the self-sacrificial ones, are often much harder. How will this affect my team? company? clients? Will the profit generated be fair and just? Am I stealing some of the credit from someone else? Can I use this to help a colleague rise up the ladder? Is this small success worth the extra work it will create for those around me?

Having a mechanism in place for dealing with consequential decisions would provide us with a solid framework for answering both the self-serving questions as well as the self-sacrificial ones. There are quite a few different mental models used to accomplish this task. Just Google “How to Make Decisions” and see for yourself. However, I like the following the best as it is also fairly straightforward, and we know if it is simple enough, we will normally use it.

Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa suggest 8 steps in their book Smart Choices:

1. Work on the right problem.
2. Identify all criteria.
3. Create imaginative alternatives.
4. Understand the consequences.
5. Grapple with your tradeoffs.
6. Clarify your uncertainties.
7. Think hard about your risk tolerance.
8. Consider linked decisions.

Whatever strategy you opt to use, use something. Don’t let only the self-serving questions guide your career decision making. In the end you’ll have a much more satisfying career.