Want to Be Ethical? Follow Principles, Not Rules

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By Mario Trentim

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in behavioral economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, has written about how people tend to make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains rather than the final outcome. Considering our common cognitive and emotional biases, how can we cope with daily ethics challenges with integrity?

We humans are in some ways predictably irrational. “Common sense” doesn’t mean best practices. Some people might have totally appropriate but opposite stances on the same topic.

Does that mean ethical practices are a matter of choice? Of course not—ethics are a matter of common good: In his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, Michael Sandel explores timeless philosophical and theoretical questions with real-world examples. He does the same in this video:

My conclusion is that the more we abide by a code of ethics based on strict rules and procedures, the more people tend to display unethical behaviors when faced with gray areas and edge cases.

So what’s the solution?

In How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, Russ Roberts provides extremely valuable insights to the question above. In summary, we are much better off by teaching and praising Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments than by creating new regulations and sanctions to prevent unethical behavior.

What All This Means for Project Managers

What’s the upshot of all this for project management professionals? We must abide by the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, but it’s even more important that we adhere to ethics focused on the common good.

Project managers face extreme pressure. Shortcuts are tempting—but in the long run they seldom pay off. Here are two examples of unethical temptations that put our work into the broader moral perspective that I think is so valuable.

  1. Imagine you hire a stockbroker. You ask his unbiased opinion on the best investment, and he provides you information about assets he already manages without mentioning others that might better suit your needs. Is that ethical behavior? What if you, as a project manager, offer a solution to your client that you know isn’t the best one because it’s the easiest for you?
  2. Suppose you visit a doctor. He’s in a hurry, so he doesn’t perform the necessary diagnostic steps. He prescribes a general drug that might help you—or might not. And he asks you to come back in two months. Is that ethical behavior? What if you, as a project manager, don’t take the time to gather requirements and instead try to force a one-size-fits-all solution on your client?

It’s easy to point fingers at doctors and lawyers—their work dramatically impacts people’s lives. A mistake made by a prosecutor may imprison an innocent. A doctor’s mistake may kill or handicap a patient.

How about project managers’ mistakes? You may put your project in jeopardy, of course. But that’s not all: You may put your team members, client and other stakeholders at risk. You may even bankrupt your organization.

The bottom line: The most surefire way to maintain high ethical standards is to think frequently about the far-reaching impacts of your work—on worker safety, the environment and social well-being, for example. Our choices matter—in ways we can’t necessarily anticipate.

How do you respond to everyday ethical challenges in your project management practice? Share your thoughts below.

Posted by Mario Trentim on: February 10, 2016 11:59 PM | Permalink

Comments (15)

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Ethical behaviour cannot be forced upon it should be intrinsic to the PM.

I agree, Aejaz. I believe that most of the issues are "gray areas" in which people tend to misjudge ethical behaviour. Regards, Mario.

Any ethical behavior can be forced with rules but will be built with acceptance.

Any ethical behavior can be forced with rules but will be built with acceptance.

Any ethical behavior can be forced with rules but will be built with acceptance.

Ethics and code of conducts should not be compromised and of-course it is a skill to see the greater good when the Ethics are followed.

I had a similar experience.

I was the third project manager to lead a troubled project; the shortcut was to make a "strange" agreement with the client project manager about reporting.

I preferred to be honest (Honesty): it was tough at the beginning, but rewarding after three months.

PMI Ethics Code help us on the long term success, avoiding us to be tempted by short term gains.

thank for the article.
I try to maintain my attention focused on long term perspective, in fact in this scenario it is possible to analyse not only the aspects which conduct to a "short term earnings" but the "long term earned value" too.

Ginen, I totally agree on that! I believe that part of unethical behaviour is due to short-sighting. People don't see how bad it is.

Fabio Rigamonti, I experienced a couple of situations similar to yours. I'd say that it is easy to say NO when you have a strong YES inside. There are two nice books on that: The Power of NO (http://amzn.to/21vYM1Q) and Boundaries (http://amzn.to/24wUiH5).

Fosco, I agree with you. As Stephen Covey says, there are no shortcuts (the law of the harvest)... And "there is no free lunch", a famous quote from Milton Friedman.

Hi Mario,
thanks for the books suggestions.

I knew "The power of NO", I've just added "Boundaries" to my reading wishlist.

Good article, Mario.

To me the essence of ethical behavior is the intersection of three concepts: choice, consequence and responsibility. As one of my favorite authors put it:

"I learned that we all have choices, even when we don''t recognize them, and that those choices have consequences, not just for ourselves, but for others. We must assume responsibility for those consequences." (J.M. Straczynski)

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