Lighthouse at night, (c) 2009 Martin Belam. Via flickr. (CC BY SA 2.0)

If Your Boss Doesn’t Want You Preventing Problems, What Is Ethical To Do?

E. Forrest Christian Change 3 Comments

Last time I recommended that if you are in an environment where the management rewards “firefighter” project managers rather than PMs who prevent them from ever occurring, you need to let some fires start. (“You Have To Let the Project Break So You Can Prove Yourself By Fixing It“) I wasnt saying start them on your own but simply don’t take the steps that the firm doesn’t reward to prevent them. Then you can look successful by attacking them.

Commenter JP took strong issue with this. To him, it was an issue of character. He quoted my phrase “This may sound mad, but people who are successful know how to play the game,” then wrote:

It’s not mad, it just immoral.

You just need to accept that by doing the right thing, you will be passed over.

Isn’t character what you are in the dark?

He’s got a point so let’s look at it.

I used to believe the same way when I actively ran projects as project manager. I saw doing my best as defined by me as the sign that I was a good worker, a superior project manager. In my faith tradition, not doing what you are paid to do is considered stealing from your employer. So I’ve been taught to take this seriously.

The problem is the phrase as defined by me. My boss isn’t paying me to do project management work that I make up. He’s paying me to do the work the way he wants it done. If I try to do my best as defined by me, I may actually be doing something that the boss doesn’t want done.

An early lesson for me came when I worked as a Teamster summer worker at a dairy factory in the Great Lakes when I was 19. I worked Sanitation Team, which is a fancy name for “factory janitors”. We were responsible for ensuring that everything got cleaned during the overnight shift, when there were few lines running. It was hard work but surprisingly fun. (We got discarded ice cream novelties when a box broke or something. Mmmmmm.)

I worked as a floater. My partner and I had work that couldn’t be done before a certain hour, and was often done rather quickly. The team really just needed everyone there for about 4 hours but it’s shift work and you can’t do that.

So we would always have to roam around looking for work. Or look like we were looking for work.

One night I saw a coworker struggling to washout a massive stack of buckets. Being a good work and a “team player”, I sat down and helped him.

For which I got a thorough tongue thrashing by the foremen.

To them, I was ruining their plans. They saw him as lazy and irritating (true on both counts) who would be better replaced. So they were trying to get him to quit by simply riding him to do work for a full shift when he usually only worked for about three hours a night.

I was told to stop doing what I wasn’t told to do. If they wanted me to help someone out I would be told.

Was I showing character? I believed that I was showing that I was a team player and a hard worker. My boss saw me as someone propping up someone who was lazy and not doing the work required for his pay. To him I was simply a bad worker in that moment.

This isn’t that unusual. An old partner of mine is a senior software developer who has worked for companies like UBS and Google. Although he is an incredible programmer, he went through a divorce about the time of the collapse and took whatever came around first.

The problem is that he kept trying to solve problems that his boss didn’t see. James could see them because his personal time horizon went out the far. His boss’s didn’t.

And it went poorly for James.

Not only is his boss angry when he sees James solving these problems (“What are you doing? Do your work!”) but James also gets it when the problem comes around. It’s kind of “you mentioned it, so it must be your fault!”

What is character for James to do in this role?

It’s clear that his boss does not want him to do the work to solve these problems. James gets reprimanded for it. Nor does it work out later because they simply blame him for it when it later occurs.

Is it James’s job to prevent these problems?

Here’s where work levels and Elliott Jaques’s time span of discretion can help us understand things.

James is paid to do Level 1 programming work. The time span of discretion for level 1 — the chronological time it takes for his decisions about his work to come due or how far into the future he can work without his boss checking his work — is less than three months.

James’s boss should be doing Level 2 work to properly set context for the Level 1 work. The time span of discretion for Level 2 roles is three months to a year. The boss should be able to make decisions that will not come due for that period.

James is solving problems that will not occur, by his own estimate, for at least another year, perhaps two.

James is trying to solve problems that his boss is incapable of seeing because it is outside the boss’s personal time horizon. Things out that far aren’t real. It’s all just talk.

So James is doing work that is outside the scope of his hiring arrangement.

Should Jim work hard at doing what he is paid to do? Or should he solve these problems that will occur in the future?

This isn’t like the issue of the too-small emergency escape hatch in the US’s World War II bombers. I recall Freeman Dyson’s essay on how tirelessly an engineer he knew worked to change the Generals’ minds about it and push the change of increasing it just a few inches. When they did survival rates jumped.

This was not what the guy was paid to do. But it was about people dying. To let it go would show something of your character.

As would going along with orders to do things you knew were wrong. One can think of endless examples. Character showed.

But we’re talking about projects that will simply cost more or be late. Is it character to do what you are paid to do or to spend your employer’s money working on what you think is important?

It might be bad for our staff, too. I was once introduced to the “best project manager in IT” while working for a large insurance company based in Illinois, whose IT department at that time (including onsite contractors and employees) was around 10,000 people. He told me that he kept a little list of all the risks that he foresaw. If he told the staff about it too early, they wouldn’t believe him. Worse, when the problem came up they would blame him for creating it.

So he kept his own personal risk list in his desk and tried to quietly, without telling anyone or revealing what he was doing, put in place structures that could be deployed to mitigate them. But most of the time there was little he could do other than prepare himself.

What about the Scotty Principle?

IF you tell Capt. Kirk the truth — that you can hit Warp 9 pretty much any time you want but it’s really bad on the dilithium crystal enclosures and they take your team a month of full time work to exchange — he will want to travel at Warp 9 all the time because that’s what he’s like and the ship will sooner or later either have to be taken out of commission for repairs way too early or will end up being stranded out in the middle of the Gamma Quadrant because they all blew at the same time. (See Mr. Murphy for more.)

I’ve been there. I had to spend $500,000 to do something stupid that we know would fail as part of RBAC rollout for an international bank because the boss demanded it. He couldn’t back down once he said it because that would have cost him face, even though it was impossible due to known constraints. (That pesky speed of light!) It was only when it failed in production when he could finally blame us (“idiot technical nerds!”) that we could finally implement what we all knew was all that would work.

Is it more ethical to waste the shareholders’ money and in the end bring down a major system, costing the bank another few million in lost revenues, and obey him? Should we have done what was right anyway and gotten fired along with entire external team we worked with?

Or would it have been more ethical to lead him to believe that we were doing what he asked and in the end never do it, but do what would work?

These are not easy issues. But we do have to keep in mind that the company is paying someone above us as project managers who has created this environment, so this is what the company wants. The shareholders elect the board that is responsible for the CEO who is responsible for everyone under his or her command. This is therefore the system that they approve.

And the reality may be that you see too far for the role in which you work. You foresee problems that your manager does not. Since he cannot foresee them because his time horizons are too short or because he cannot resolve all the complexity of the issues out that far, he has no interest in paying you to do that work. Often, you will be told NOT to solve the future problems. Work on them, prevent them, and you will be disobeying a command, so to speak, and at least here can be quickly fired for insubordination, and so by lose any severance or access to any post-firing benefits.

Who do we serve? Is it The Company, whatever that is? Is it the manager we report to? Is it the people who are under my management? Is it my family? Is The Profession? Is it my own ego?

I’m not saying it’s the right situation. A naturally organized company has clear authorities and accountabilities, especially in projects. This madness doesn’t happen. If I can, this is what I would create for my people so that they can be free to show me everything they have. I want things clear so that people aren’t in these moral binds where they have to do bad work.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps individuals and companies find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants, both as individuals and as leaders of organizations at least as diverse. [contact]

Comments 3

  1. Discretion is the better part of valor. Having worked in a number of different industries, for many different bosses I have learned many things, but the most important lesson was to adapt to how your boss wants things done. If he’s a tech guy and checks his phone or brings his tablet to a meeting than it’s OK for you to do the same. If he’s old fashioned and prefers paper and pen and gets annoyed with people checking their devices during meetings than you’re better off leaving your devices at your desk or turning them off before meetings. Every boss is different and at the end of the day what is important to them is that you play by their rules and try to make their job easier and make them look good to their superiors. Unless the risks you are trying to mitigate may result in physical harm to others I don’t feel morals play a part. This may be jaded, but the days of companies looking out for their employees and providing life-long employment opportunities are gone. Your main obligation is to your family; to provide for their needs and future. As much as possible we try to live by our values, whether they be based on faith or some other code of conduct, but sadly values and morals tend to have very little application in the modern workplace. Survival is reality, and has been since the beginning of time, only the methods for surviving have changed.

  2. Post
    Author

    That’s an absolutely GenX answer, Dan. (And great to have a comment from an old friend.)

    There are probably a few things that I’d add to “no physical harm”, but the principle is there: you work for your boss. And that is fraught with moral problems.

    Relying on people to be good is stupid. Creating systems that reveal what people are doing is smart. Because people would rather be seen as being good than actually being good.

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