Knowing what’s right versus doing what’s right

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Knowing what’s right versus doing what’s right

Written by Trevor O’Hara FIML, volunteer Chairman of Crime Stoppers Australia Ltd. 


When we let cynicism creep into our daily lives, it becomes harder to do the right thing.

That’s because when we allow ourselves to believe the worst about other people, we may actually be giving ourselves permission to water-down our own ethical standards.

One of the world’s most influential management thinkers, and Wharton School professor, Adam Grant said, “People often rationalise selfishness by convincing themselves that everyone else is selfish.”

When we act in ways designed only to advantage ourselves, we lose sight of what’s best for our team and our organisation. We may even act in ways that cause significant harm to our colleagues or employer.


We know what’s wrong

At a surface level, we all know the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We know it’s wrong to steal, to cheat, to lie, to cut corners, to betray others.

The idea that most other people are already committing and ‘getting away with’ bad behaviour is powerful and incredibly damaging. An individual who begins to think this way can justify all sorts of unethical acts.


To alleviate any guilt they feel, such an individual may tell themselves that ‘everybody does it’. To believe otherwise would contradict how they view themselves – nobody wants to believe they are bad. Instead, they tell themselves they’re a realist, operating in a corrupt, dog-eat-dog world.

You can see how in the business world, this line of thought allows some people to put ethics aside in favour of getting results, making deals or lining their own pockets.


What if they’re right?

A problem that some organisations experience, is that undesirable behaviour becomes normalised. Such behaviour is seen as acceptable because management practices and systems lack transparency and accountability.

Small acts of dishonesty and mistrust are enough to breed cynicism in a workplace.

Consider the way some organisations conduct staff satisfaction surveys. Many of us would be aware of situations where despite claims of, ‘we want to know what you think’ and ‘we want to improve’, results that are less than favourable are either dismissed, ignored or even challenged by leadership.


What about the disconnect between an organisation’s no alcohol policy and the team manager attending a boozy lunch meeting? If something is important enough to put into a policy then it should apply to everyone, every time.

When words and actions do not align – people stop believing you. Some of those people become pessimistic, and then deliberately disruptive or deceptive.


Integrity requires concrete foundations

An organisation where people do what’s right requires more than good intentions.

You need to create clear boundaries. And then follow through when standards aren’t met.

That’s where courage comes in: how genuine are your efforts to identify and address lapses? How are you making it clear that you actually want to know when standards aren’t met – and creating safe avenues for people to tell you?


To make this work, you need fool-proof systems that cannot be overridden by an individual just because they hold a position of power, or because they are ‘well-liked’.

It requires processes and training that equips people with the ‘ethical intelligence’ they need to work through inconsistencies between principles and behaviours.

A values statement that includes the word integrity is never enough. There are too many cracks for people to fall through and become disillusioned.

Bringing out the best in others means vigilance in supporting them to do what’s right in a structured, uncompromising way that cultivates a culture of openness and confidence.

Trevor O’Hara FIML is a speaker at IML Leadership Matters Conference: 7 attributes of very successful leaders at Sofitel Brisbane Central on November 2nd, 2017. Book tickets here.

One thought on “Knowing what’s right versus doing what’s right

  • What can a company do when they don’t have moral and ethical values from the top, an Owner of a company is having an extra marital affair with another co-worker, then she gets favoritism and a authority to question or boss around other departments that have nothing to do with her own. Then they come up with a manual that clearly prohibits relationships between co-workers. You live by example so what to do next? the whole office looses respect for management and we all have to suffer because of the owners mistake.

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