One of the things that have been foremost in my mind for quite some time now is the fact that we simply don’t tell people often enough that doing the right thing comes with a price tag. In my previous role as CEO of the Institute of Internal Auditors SA, it was inevitable that I would be confronted with this issue over and over again. During my tenure there simply had been a significant increase in internal auditors reporting that they had been persecuted for doing their jobs. Many were victimised, coerced, threatened, re-deployed, demoted, ostracised, suspended and even fired as a result of scratching in areas where they were touching on the interest of people looting their organisations’ coffers or that of others. As I looked around, the same sentiments were expressed by individuals in other professions, quite depressingly so.
That got me thinking. What had become crystal clear is the fact that many academic institutions and professional bodies are training professionals to be good technicians, but don’t spend enough time training them to deal with the inevitable politics. The result is that many people naively think that in doing the right thing they will naturally be protected. We should be telling people that when you stand your ground on ethical principles, sooner or later you will come under fire, whether it is overtly or covertly so.
In my observation, and some painful personal experiences, it is often people in leadership positions, who present themselves as governance gurus or ethical leaders, who can be the most vicious attackers when their interest is under threat. Often these same people will use governance instruments to attack the ones who they feel are destabilisers in a system that benefits them. These are the ones that can cause the most pain, as professionals find themselves questioning whether there is any ounce of ethical fibre left in the world and could quite easily find themselves crippled by what they experience as betrayal. The unscrupulous ones are far easier to spot and make it easier for the professional to expect an attack, but sometimes they are not the most dangerous ones.
We should be teaching professionals that when you touch peoples’ interest, the likelihood is high that they will come for you. It takes a very mature leader to restrain him/herself from retaliating when someone has touched their interest. Not many of those around, I’m afraid. One unfortunately needs to consider what interests your actions will affect before you make a move.
This is however easier said than done, as many will not be honest and be upfront about what their interests are. More often than not, there would be a deliberate concealment. Combine that with having to navigate through continuous complexity and running at a fast pace, one is bound to forget, or not have the time, to put your antennas up and observe what people do and say, in order to build a map of who is who in the zoo and what interests they are likely to want to protect.
This becomes even more difficult when you are in an environment where patronage is at the core of the culture and the culprits run in packs. In such cases the attack may come from an unlikely source as someone may be protecting the interest of another who had his/her back in some other matter. Where hands are being washed and backs covered, navigating becomes tougher. It then becomes even more important to be more cautious of how you approach the situation. Taking a bull in a china shop approach may just end up being your undoing. One must then make the time to study the lie of the land and make informed decisions.
When the stakes are high, you may need a strategy on how you will tackle ethical issues. Understanding how human beings behave and respond to what they perceive to be a threat to them or what they hold dear is an important skill. You may need to take an approach that recognises that in order to win the war you may need to sacrifice some battles. You are no good to anyone if you get taken out in the middle of an insignificant battle. Sometimes it means that one has to be a little patient and invest more time in planning how you will strike. In the process, recognize the dangers of swimming against the tide and mitigate the risk of you standing for what is right having adverse consequences.
This must not be confused with compromising on what is right. It means be smarter about how you get to your end goal. Sometimes you need to spend some time in rounding up the good people who are willing to display ethical courage instead of tackling the bull by the horns solo.
This may seem overwhelming or outside of your range of capabilities, but we all have what it takes. Sometimes we just need a little help and guidance. Seek it if necessary. Sometimes we need to talk to a coach outside of the organisation, who can look at things coldly and help us navigate through the inevitable emotions. Above all, always remember that doing the right thing comes with a price tag, BUT not doing the right thing comes at a much higher price. Never sell your soul, as buying it back may be an impossible task.