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Topics: Ethics, Leadership, Organizational Culture
Duty vs. Responsibility
In these troubled times, I find that lately I am spending a lot of time thinking about and reflecting on questions of ethics, particularly where duty and responsibility are in conflict.

We may feel a duty to follow a leader’s directive because of that person’s position, power, or ability affect our future, but what is our responsibility if we firmly believe that directive is wrong? With our future or the future of the organization or possibly our country or even the planet at stake, how can we, from our limited perspective and partial knowledge, decide what to do? And, how do we find the justification and the courage to support that decision either way?

Have you had to speak truth to power? Or have you gone along, convinced that the leader had the breadth of knowledge that you lacked? Or, have you been lucky enough not to have faced this issue but have thoughts on what you would do if confronted with it?

All comments are welcome – I look forward to hearing from you!
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This is a great question, Bryan. On one extreme, we risk becoming Don Quixotes by tilting at every windmill which we feel crosses one of our boundaries. On the other extreme we have the behavior which resulted in the Nuremberg trials.

One of the core values of all leaders (not just PMs) is having a solid moral compass. That allows us to look at a decision and judge whether it would cause harm and then engage the second core value of courage to challenge our leaders.

For most of us, it will come down to valuing short-term (personal) safety over longer-term benefits for us, our organization or society in general.

I have walked away from jobs because I felt a line would be crossed. I had the confidence that I could land on my feet (and I did), but others may not.

Kiron
Bryan,

these kind of ethical dilemmas are as old as humankind.

We have values or beliefs and often 2 or more seem to contradict each other, depending on the context.

This contradiction creates emotions of insecurity, fear or hate, which we rather not want to have. (My belief)

The cure starts to involve our conscience, make ourselves aware of values and beliefs (Kiron calls it moral compass) and then decide what to do. A good primer is here:
https://hbr.org/2020/01/building-an-ethical-career

BTW values and beliefs are totally different, all humans share values like fairness or autonomy, but beliefs divide us into tribes/sects. To make yourself aware of this and understanding your own drivers is a first step.
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/when-rules-...thomas-walenta/

Thomas
And Bryan,

for me a duty is a belief, imposed on us by a group we are in, like a duty by law, a duty by religion, a duty by group consensus. What members of one group may say is a duty (like the duty to attend church on Sundays, the fiduciary duty of Board members), other groups might not care about. Dilemmas may occur if you are member of two groups with contradicting duties (like Christian church and US marines about killing others).

My responsibility is a value, it expresses itself as a bad emotion if I do not act according my responsibility or as a good emotion if I feel I fulfilled my responsibility. Same if I see others fail or achieve their responsibility, I may feel angry at them and dissappointed or proud of them, e.g. if my kid misses a deadline or not. The value of responsibility is deeply engrained in humans, everywhere, as tribal enemies we depend on others keeping their promises and being responsible. Some for ourselves.

Thomas
Ethics? What is ethic? You are working in KPMG. What is ethics for your organization? What is the code of ethics your organization created?
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1 reply by Bryan Shelby
Jul 28, 2022 5:10 PM
Bryan Shelby
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Sergio, thank you for your questions. My firm actually has an extensive ethics program, including an Ethical Decision-Making Tool, a Code of Ethics, and mandatory training every quarter on topics of ethics in the workplace. In addition, of course, here at PMI we have our own Code of Ethics and Ethical Decision-Making Framework to help guide PMs who may face ethical questions.
My thoughts were not related to my own work, but to questions that come out of my observations about the state of the world. Should one "hold one's nose" and support or work in government for someone who espouses political positions that you agree with even if that person is profoundly flawed in other ways or even corrupt? Is it ethical to work for an organization (or government) that profits from practices that harm the planet or specific populations but that pays extremely well? How does one balance personal responsibility with corporate responsibility and/or political support? These kinds of issues are the ones that are difficult to resolve and that are worth thinking about...
I hope that helps clarify the reason for the post.
Thanks Kiron and Thomas for your thoughtful comments. I agree that the difficult choices are those that cause conflicts among duties, or among responsibilities. My rule of thumb, often expressed to others, relates to how one would feel if private actions became public: How would you feel if your action ended up on the front page of the New York Times or, these days, trending on Twitter? If that would be bad in any sense, then maybe that's not the right thing to do!
Brian, yes, in the link I shared, the article shows 3 tests for your ethical decision,

1. the publicity test that you mention
2. the generalization test, which means your decision could serve as a general advice in similar situations, even as a law
3. the mirror test, when you look at the person making that decision in the mirror (or step out of yourself) and feel what you think about his decision

Thomas
Bryan, I am lucky to fall in the first category, am I or am I not ?!
In my very personal case, I am very sensitive to any un-ethical behavior , and by un-ethical, I mean any situation where respect, honesty and fairness are in question, this is my responsibility to highlight such situations to higher management, and thus, being dismissed from involvement when these situations are occurring. So far, things are working with me.
I think I am lucky to not have faced this situation. But as i think, regardless of the leader who may be creating this internal conflict, i think it's on is to stand by the values that govern our own conscious.

This may seem easy but I know it's difficult in the face of the flow of events.
Jul 24, 2022 2:03 PM
Replying to Sergio Luis Conte
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Ethics? What is ethic? You are working in KPMG. What is ethics for your organization? What is the code of ethics your organization created?
Sergio, thank you for your questions. My firm actually has an extensive ethics program, including an Ethical Decision-Making Tool, a Code of Ethics, and mandatory training every quarter on topics of ethics in the workplace. In addition, of course, here at PMI we have our own Code of Ethics and Ethical Decision-Making Framework to help guide PMs who may face ethical questions.
My thoughts were not related to my own work, but to questions that come out of my observations about the state of the world. Should one "hold one's nose" and support or work in government for someone who espouses political positions that you agree with even if that person is profoundly flawed in other ways or even corrupt? Is it ethical to work for an organization (or government) that profits from practices that harm the planet or specific populations but that pays extremely well? How does one balance personal responsibility with corporate responsibility and/or political support? These kinds of issues are the ones that are difficult to resolve and that are worth thinking about...
I hope that helps clarify the reason for the post.
As someone working in government, public servants are asked to implement decisions and laws made by duly elected politcians. While we have the room to discuss and debate the how, it is not our duty nor responsiblity to dismiss the what or why.

"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die."
- Lord A. Tennyson
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1 reply by Bryan Shelby
Aug 12, 2022 1:09 PM
Bryan Shelby
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Stéphane, of course that "do or die" philosophy didn't work out so well for those who were the subject of that poem! :-)
I would submit, however, that there is at least one other option that, as PMs bound by the PMI Code of Ethics, we should consider. Section 2.1 of the Code says "Responsibility is our duty to take ownership for the decisions we make or fail to make, the actions we take or fail to take, and the consequences that result." Therefore, if we are asked to take actions that we believe are wrong and harmful, we have an obligation not to take those actions. Such a refusal might require resignation (or the threat thereof) -- if you've been following recent events in the US, you will have seen that both of those options were exercised in the latter days of the last administration -- or if resignation is not an option, then a refusal to act might result in dismissal with resulting career and financial consequences. The ethical quandary is the conflict between duty to those affected by such actions if carried out versus duty to self and family affected by the result of a refusal to act.
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