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Keeping your ego in check

Keeping your ego in check

When you're negotiating, be smart and act stupid.

I've heard this advice many times over the years, but my pride never lets me accept it. Ego gratification always ends up taking precedence over financial gain.

This is semi-good career counselling, too. When you try to prove that you're smarter than your organisational superiors (superior in position only, of course), one of two things will happen, both of them bad.

No. 1. You succeed. By being both smarter and spending your energy proving it, you've made yourself dangerous.

No. 2. You fail. You're not executive material; you just don't measure up.

Keep your ego out of it. When you disagree, you aren't right and your boss isn't wrong. You're discussing and reconciling alternatives to help fine-tune the program. In the end, your initiative and skill have to advance your boss's decisions, not your own. This is called "followership", and it's a valuable and valued skill.

You may be getting peeved, thinking I'm recommending toadyism. Think again. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. I'm just giving a practical example of how the workplace punishes sinfulness.

Many readers took similar exception when I pointed out that the ethics of power lead to complications beyond commonplace, day-to-day morality. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and that's all there is to it, complained some. Regardless of what I actually said, some of you said I encouraged unethical behaviour among the powerful.

Feedback on the subject brought several points into sharper focus:

- The edge of the slippery slope. Politicians used to gain power to advance their programs. That's bad enough, but as campaigning has become marketing, politicians have adjusted their programs to gain power. This distinction, gaining power to achieve worthwhile ends versus attaching yourself to whatever ends will gain you power, defines the edge of an ethical precipice. When you're playing the power game, ask yourself this question on a regular basis: "What am I trying to achieve, and if I achieve it, will I approve of the result?"

- Means and ends. The ends, we're told as children, never justify the means. This guidance provides a useful touchstone - for children. Adults, especially those with some power (and that includes everyone in management), need to apply a more sophisticated calculation.

Every action (the means) has both an immediate consequence, the one you intended to achieve (the end), and unintentional effects as well (side effects). Defining the ethics of an action by its immediate consequence alone is naive; the ethical content of an action must be measured through a complex calculus that takes into account all of its consequences.

You've heard this before: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

- Gut feeling. Should you trust your instincts when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong? Probably not. Huck Finn pointed this out: "If I had a yaller dog with no more sense than a man's conscience, I'd shoot him."

Your gut feelings come from how your mother raised you, and Mum didn't explain the choices you would have to make as a manager. An anecdote illustrates this: several years ago, one of my staff had to insist that a vendor replace a project manager on an installation. Our complaint ended up getting the project manager fired. My staff member felt understandably bad about the impact on this guy.

Here was my response: "You knew the guy who got fired. A total stranger now has an opportunity. Your knowing someone personally doesn't make him or her more deserving."

My friend Steve Nazian recently reminded me of a character in Isaac Asimov's Foundation, who recommended, "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right."

This proves, once again, the value of science fiction to your career.


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