Riddle About Perception

April 2, 2016

In one of my Transformational Leadership classes, an executive once told me, “I am the kind of person who does what he thinks is right.” I did a bit of a double take and swallowed hard to keep from insulting him by laughing out loud.

Later, when I had a chance to think about that statement, I tried to conjure up a situation where a person intentionally did what he or she thought was wrong at the time. It is hard to imagine.

I suppose if you are mentally ill, it might be possible to actually do what you believe is wrong, but I am not convinced of it. Reason: Whatever action you take at a particular time, you have rationalized it to be the best thing to do at that moment, otherwise you would do something else.

That is not to say that the rest of the world would agree with your logic, but at least you have that opinion at the instant you are taking action. Let’s take some extreme examples and pick them apart to see how the mind plays tricks on us.

We would all agree that what Bernie Madoff did in bilking thousands of investors out of billions of dollars was not the right thing to do. I am sure if you interviewed him in his cell today he would agree.

But, if you were to get inside his head while he was performing these illegal and deceptive transactions, I’ll bet he believed he was actually helping people (at least at the start). Once the Ponzi Scheme started to crumble, he was still doing what he thought was best, which was trying to protect his interests.

If he thought the best thing to do was to turn himself in, he would have done that. Let me be clear, he would have been aware he was breaking the law and hurting people in the end, but his actions at any moment were still “best” according to his twisted logic.

There is a whole class of people who have the objective to be disruptive to others even at the risk of their own longevity, but they have been brainwashed into believing the wrong acts are actually earning them a special place in another life.

How about Hitler. Surely he must have known that vaporizing millions of people in ethnic cleansing was wrong. Some history books indicate that was not the case. They point out that he was acting with the conviction that he was helping build a great society that would last forever.

My question is this. Do you think it is physically possible to do something that you believe at that instant is not the best thing to do, or is the existential act of performing a deed the definition of what a person feels is best at that instant, all things considered?

Note, I am not saying we believe it is the morally correct thing to do, just the best option available at the moment. In other words, even if we know it to be morally or ethically wrong, we have rationalized the circumstances so we believe it is the best thing we can do now.

This conundrum does not keep me awake at night, but I have puzzled over it many times. So, what is the remedy?  Get yourself a trusted friend and bounce ideas off that person, especially for the edgy decisions. At least you will have more than one brain working on the conundrum.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.

Accountability and Trust

April 25, 2010

Holding people accountable is a fundamental premise of good management. Establishing solid goals and providing feedback along the way helps employees recognize the importance of performing up to expectations. Unfortunately, some employees do not meet their goals for a variety of reasons. When this happens, managers need to hold people accountable, but there are often problems in executing this closure step.

If goals were not met due to employee laziness, lack of initiative, poor attitudes, or any other negative personal trait, then the accountability step is appropriate and should be done along with the appropriate documentation. When employees fail to meet expectations due to things that are truly out of their control, then holding them accountable seems punitive beyond reason.

I believe there is a direct link between holding people accountable in an appropriate way and the level of trust in an organization. Extreme cases are easy to understand. For example, if an employee working in the World Trade Center failed to hand in an expected report on September 12, 2001, trying to hold that individual accountable for the failure would be ludicrous. For one thing, it would not matter at all to the dead employee. On the other extreme, if an employee has made no effort whatsoever to even start an activity that was promised, holding that person accountable for the lapse is logical and necessary.

Unfortunately, many situations are in a gray area in between extremes. An employee usually will have some sort of excuse that justifies not being able to perform up to expectations. That is, he or she has rationalized the lapse based on some mental process that exonerates the employee from toeing the line. When a manager attempts to hold the individual accountable for the missed goal, it seems unfairly harsh to the individual employee and trust plummets.

The conundrum is that employees who witness their peers not performing up to expectations, yet not being held fully accountable, leads to a lowering of trust in the organization as well. For the manager, it is a kind of “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” situation. It becomes important for the manager to explain that we hold people accountable for their actions, and we do not condone a string of excuses or reasons why the goals were missed. Yet we still need to all allow some latitude for truly uncontrolled situations where it was impossible for the employee to perform up to expectations.

There is a direct relationship between how a supervisor handles the issue of accountability and the level of trust achieved at any point in time. Skilled managers recognize this sensitive area and navigate the choppy waters with great care. Using the golden rule is a great way to apply the right amount of personal sensitivity to a situation, but still get the message across that people are expected to meet commitments. Properly reinforced, this attitude will maintain trust within the organization even though some difficult or unhappy discussions need to happen with certain individuals.

How the accountability is communicated to the employee has everything to do with how it is perceived and received. If managers are consistent with follow through on commitments, then employees expect to be called out if goals are not met. Having a firm but kind conversation with the employee, in private, about a performance lapse is far superior to catching the employee off guard and rubbing his or her nose in the problem. If the manager berates the employee publicly and with a mean spirit, significant damage to the relationship will result. If managers can reinforce the effort while still insisting on the deliverables, then employees will respect that and modify their behavior.