Ethics Is Everywhere

Ethics is an important topic in project management - so much so that the PMI has published the "PMI® Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct". But how does ethics manifest itself in the day to day activities of a typical project manager.

Think of a day in the life of a project manager. There are likely to be meetings with stakeholders, interactions with team members, review of schedules, review of documents, and much more.

Each of these activities - virtually at every turn - is an opportunity to do something ethically - or unethically. And judgments of things in many shades of gray need to be made.

These day to day activities involve decisions made on the spot - not necessarily major or milestone decisions - but decisions based on judgement as to how much information to provide, how to provide it, whether or not to communicate something, how to communicate it, how to approach estimating, how much attention to give to certain people and issues, etc.

There really are an infinite number of things that can happen in a single day that will involve judgments that touch on ethics.

ethics and growth

There is no guidebook for handling these ethical issues. There may be some rules, but even there, rules are somewhat limited unless they are internalized for ethical issues.

But perhaps more important than rules, we have attributes - like honesty and integrity. These can be taught to an extent, but more than taught, they can be built or developed over time. They are foundational.

The attributes that most closely apply to ethics are, in combination, often called "character".

One of the biggest ethical judgements we make is judging the character of others. While on one hand we don't want to judge others, we do need to weight in on their character. After all, if we are going to trust someone with some aspect of the project, we need to feel comfortable as to the judgement they will use vis-a-vis their character.

After all, when we were hired, someone made a character judgement about us - whether we could be trusted with the myriad of ethical judgments that we would be expected to encounter. Someone made a judgment as to whether we would be trustworthy on the project. We do the same when we bring on team members.

So, back to ethics... It goes to the core of things. It's at a foundation level. It influences all decisions made - at least those where we need to make value judgments.

So how do we differentiate between judgments and preferences? Where is the difference between character judgments and simple preferential judgments? And is there a conflict between the two.

One area will involve our foundational character related to religion. It's going to related closely to what we do, how we act, and how we think. And it may come out different for someone else.

This is where it is important to have a deep understanding of values, people, and how decisions are made. We need to judge if someone has enough of an overlap with our values - especially in the most important areas - to trust them with responsibilities. We also need to ask ourselves what we are willing to tolerate - what breadth of responsible judgment can we allow someone, given that they may make decisions different than us.

In the end, we need to make judgments and decisions all of the time. We need to feel comfortable. And that's where the rub is. In today's society, we are consistently being pushed outside the envelope of our comfort zone. In many instances, we are being asked to stretch our range of acceptance into new areas - as broad as religious, racial, or sexual preference values, or even based on college attended, subjects studied, level of education, and more. These things challenge us to do more than exercise our inherent character as formed by values build t over time. They ask use to have enough character to question ourselves, be willing to be challenged, and to be willing to change in value-informed ways as we listen and learn.

This is not just something we practice on projects. It is something that we practice in life - and it's virtually everywhere. In addition, I think it's a journey, as we do evolve over time - including our values and character. We need to have the value and desire to grow in our capabilities to work with others and handle gray area challenges. For more thoughts on ethics and project management, see my article "Ethics: A Means to an End?"

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