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Office Politics vs. Your Moral Compass

If you know better, then act better (it might save your career).

Key points

  • With happiness at work, how you do it matters as much as what you do.
  • Having a good moral compass can help guide your decision-making and actions.
  • It’s better to be considerate of yourself than self-righteous.
  • Self-awareness is the first step towards moral clarity and good choices.
Source: PICRYL

Alice was a mid-tier executive in the New York office of a national nonprofit. It was known around the city for paying well. You could see yourself on the side of the angels while you made a decent living.

But as Alice described it, it was full of rot. The national office was busy with its own projects and with fundraising; its self-importance left it indifferent to the regional offices. The regional offices, or at least the one in New York, spent its time trying to keep the top execs as far away as possible, except around budget time, when the point was to get them to distribute lots of cash for the coming year. Did the regional offices actually do anything? Sometimes—if none of the supporters would be offended.

The supporters —major U.S. and international companies—liked their association with this organization (I’ll call it ABC) because it burnished their reputation. The only problem was that sometimes, when ABC tried to help people, it potentially exposed the unfair labor practices, union busting, and low wages that kept the supporting companies profitable. Can’t have that! So, most of the time, ABC made important-sounding pronouncements that avoided naming names or casting blame.

Alice detested the system, which she blamed on the national executives and the time-servers that they appointed regionally. “It wasn’t always like this,” she told me, “but as the careerists took over, they whittled away at the mission.”

So why had Alice stayed all these years, as she watched the corrosive influence of the supporters and the people at the top who coddled them? “I stayed for the money,” she said matter-of-factly. Finally, she offered a rationalization: “At least I wasn’t doing any harm.”

In fact, no one did much. She’d come in at 10 and leave around 4. Alice told me that she knew she was taking money for not working, but she said nobody cared. “I was complicit in the scam that the national office was running. Everyone was in it for money.”

What Alice described was a long, slow slide in her personal integrity. She was morally incensed by the “scam” but, finally, she gave in to its lucrative appeal. She found cover, sort of, in the fact that everyone was in on it.

The inflection point came around two years before she started seeing me. Alice had been instrumental in getting the office director fired; she’d hated that he unloaded his work on her (which sometimes forced her to stay until 5). A new director would be found for the office. What moral qualms she had about working at ABC went into hibernation.

But then she got an idea. She thought that if she could help pick the new director of the office, and let that person know that she’d been instrumental, she could guarantee her future for as long as she cared to stay. “I wanted someone who was on my side,” she told me. “I thought they’d scratch my back if I scratched theirs.” She thought everything would go on like before . . . only maybe with some tweaks.

Finally, after a protracted search, Alice’s candidate won. Alice had worked tirelessly to promote her. When Carey finally came on board, Alice felt that her future at ABC was assured. Carey knew about Alice’s role in her selection, and they’d actually stayed in contact during the process.

What happened next was almost Hitchcockian. Carey called everyone into her office, one by one, except Alice. The people she called were either summarily fired or reassigned to jobs that they couldn’t do and would quit after a few weeks’ floundering.

Suddenly, with no work to supervise, Alice had nothing to do. She went from leisure to outright boredom. She wondered what was up regarding her fate, but was afraid to ask. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she walked into Carey’s office and confronted her. Carey said that maybe Alice could think up something to do.

Finally, it dawned on Alice that she was being frozen out. Apparently, Carey had decided not to fire her because of possible age discrimination. “At that point,” Alice told me, “I still wanted to stay for the money, but the humiliation was getting to me.”

Alice decided to call the national office and complain. She gave them an earful about how Carey was treating her. But after a few calls, she realized that she’d been had. Here was the payback for exposing the earlier director. Nobody appreciated her rocking the boat.

When Alice realized it was all over, she quit. She tried to talk to the people who had been reassigned, but they avoided her, afraid that Carey would find out and fire them even before they had to quit.

Alice was depressed and disillusioned. “What did I do?” she asked. “I was just like everyone else.” Yes, except that some of them had more power. If Alice had become a mini-careerist, in it for the money and playing along, Carey was a bigger, cannier careerist who knew how to manage the national office. If Alice thought she was pulling strings, then her strings were being pulled by much-higher-ups while she didn’t even know it. The point is that Alice had been self-seeking and naïve, a lethal combination. She had sacrificed her principles only to find out, in the end, that it had done her no good.

“I’m learning my lesson,” she told me. So, I told her, “The real lesson is that learning a lesson should not be deferred indefinitely.”

Alice now accepts that had she reined herself in when she first had moral qualms, she might have forestalled the damage. “But I didn’t want to think,” she said.

What we learn from her story is that selling out one’s principles, in an environment where everyone is doing it, means that you are constantly exposed to unprincipled people who will turn on you when it’s to their advantage. Thinking you know what the higher-ups are thinking, because you think you made them think it, is a mistake. Alice had been telling herself stories, making up rationalizations that had allowed her to keep playing along. Now she acknowledges her part in her own undoing. Self-awareness is the first step towards moral clarity.

Are you allowing yourself to coast along in moral ambiguity when, in fact, you know better? Coasting can end in succumbing to an undertow. Be honest with yourself while you still have time.

More from Ahron Friedberg M.D.
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