Good day, team.
This past week, I’ve been thinking about what happens when an event at work causes us to question our own integrity. This week’s challenge is about these kinds of dilemmas — when we are faced with the difficult choice of protecting our integrity or doing what seems right for our career.
Here’s a good example:
One of my clients was part of an executive team in a company. He reported to the CEO along with five other people, each representing one of the core functions in the organization — finance, technology, marketing, sales and operations. He had been in his role for about two years when he began to understand that the CEO was lying. He first experienced this when he flew from Chicago to New York for an important customer meeting. The CEO had asked him to attend the meeting and gave him detailed instructions about what results the company hoped to achieve through the discussions. When my client asked if the CEO would also attend, she said, “Of course, we’ll both be there. This is too important of a deal for me not to attend. But we will position ourselves better if you lead the discussion and do the negotiating. I’ll be there to support you, and our customers will see that by my being there, this deal is our top priority.”
My client prepared diligently, and when he boarded the plane, he felt confident that the meeting would go well. The next day, he settled into a chair in the reception area at his customer’s offices. His boss wasn’t there yet, and he hadn’t heard from her. He began to scroll through e-mail on his phone and found an early morning message from her. He was shocked to read that his boss would not be attending the meeting. Something had come up that prevented her from making the trip, but she didn’t say what it was. She wished him luck and asked that he call her as soon as the meeting was over to let her know how it had gone.
His heart rate increased and his throat tightened as he saw his customers coming down the hallway to greet him. What had happened? How could she miss this important meeting with their top customer? How would he explain her absence? He didn’t want to lie, but he thought he’d better come up with a pretty good excuse. And what did she expect from him? Was he supposed to shoulder this one all on his own?
The customer’s first question was, “Where’s your boss this morning?” My client felt his face redden and replied, “She had a family emergency come up at the last minute.” As he looked his most important customer in the eye, he could tell this guy knew he was lying. But he could do nothing about it. He had to play his role the best he could, even if he had to lie and compromise his own integrity.
After the meeting, his boss didn’t answer when he called to tell her how it had gone, so he left a message. Later that day, he received an email from her saying how pleased she was with his efforts and that she had every confidence the deal would turn out the way they hoped. She also said she was sorry she couldn’t be there but staying in the home office had been important for her to do. They could talk more when he returned to the office.
Two days later, after other meetings in New York, my client boarded his flight back to Chicago, still depressed by what had happened. He still couldn’t resolve the nagging feeling he had about lying to his customer. How would the customer be able to trust him going forward? Why did his boss put him in that position? He couldn’t say, “She blew off the meeting.” Should he have said something else? But anything short of “family emergency,” would have implied that this meeting was not her top priority. My client tried to rationalize his actions by saying to himself, “My customer isn’t stupid, he knows that anyone put in my shoes would have done the same thing. What difference did it really make anyway?”
As he settled into his seat, much to his surprise, he saw his boss board the plane and sit down in first class. Not only had she lied about not being able to attend the meeting, but she was actually in New York all along! Anger replaced shock, and for the rest of the trip, my client seethed. He felt betrayed and duped. Underneath the anger was fear. What did this mean? Why was she doing this to him? Was she planning to put him in a position to fail so she could fire him? What would this mean for his family? His son was a year away from going to Stanford. How could he afford to send him there without a job?
As he walked through the terminal after deplaning, my client kept his head down. He didn’t want to see her for fear that he would completely lose it and express his anger toward her.
After a sleepless night, my client arrived at his office the following morning caught in a quandary. Should he confront his boss, tell her he saw her on the airplane and ask for an explanation? Should he avoid the conversation all together? He knew what was politically correct, but what was he going to do about his anger, frustration, sense of betrayal and desire to tell the truth?
Later that morning, when he met with his boss to review his trip, he could not stay quiet. His desire to clear the air, tell the truth and ask her for an explanation became too great.
As their meeting began to wind down, he finally asked “Can you level with me here? I saw you on the flight back to Chicago yesterday, which means you were actually in New York. Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you attend the meeting? What’s going on?” One eyebrow raised slightly, as his boss remarked, “Oh, I didn’t get a chance to tell you. I had to make a quick turnaround trip to New York to talk with some of our analysts.” There was a slight possibility that she was telling him the truth, but his intuition knew she was lying. He understood in that moment that she was now just piling lies on top of lies and that trying to get to the truth would be a waste of time.
As he left her office, he thought, “Whatever trust I had in this woman is gone. I better watch my back from now on.”
To make matters worse, weeks later, in the quarterly meeting with their board of directors, his boss described the trip to negotiate the deal with their best customer in New York as if she actually had attended. She took credit for the work he had done as though she had negotiated the deal herself. He watched in a state of complete disbelief and resentment when she didn’t even mentioned all the work he had done. He got no credit. Just when he thought he couldn’t bare the lies any longer, during the break, the chairman approached him and asked in a low voice, “Tell me Dave, how did the meeting in New York really go?” Although my client was encouraged by the chairman’s obvious acknowledgement of his role in the deal, he was now being challenged to speak the truth about what really happened and, in doing so, reveal his boss’ lack of integrity.
These things happen to all of us from time to time as we try to navigate our way through our daily jobs. Whether we are part of an executive team or a part-time clerk working in an accounting office, we all see things that make us question whether something is being done right and if the people we work with are telling the truth. How should we handle these situations? Do we just play our roles as best as we can, even if it means we have to lie or cheat to cover for our bosses, team members or directors? My example may not seem like a big deal, but for my client, the inner turmoil it created was torture. He was placed on the razor’s edge between being true to himself and doing the right thing versus doing what he thought he had to do to keep his job and not confront his boss’ lack of integrity. As a result, he no longer trusted his boss and spent the rest of his time at the company in fear and trepidation about his career. Eventually, he left.
In his new job, my client often encounters similar situations but not to the degree he did in his previous position. He was careful when selecting his new job and asked about his potential new boss’ personal values. He got feedback from people who worked at the company and asked, “Does he have integrity and how does it show up?” His new job is not perfect, but it’s better.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, learn to tell the truth in a way that it can be received. I often help my clients reframe their messages. If I say to someone, “You lied to me, why did you do that?” I know I won’t get a good response. It may be true and direct, but generally, this approach can make the other person feel backed into a corner. It’s more likely to bring out defensiveness. On the other hand, when I say, “Tell me what happened here,” I’ll usually have a better chance of hearing the truth from the other person because I’m not being so confrontational.
Another approach can be to find a time after the challenging incident has occurred to sit down with the person you’re dealing with and bring up the subject of integrity. Ask how he or she balances his or her own integrity with the actions of others that are not in line with that integrity. It may seem manipulative, but if you ask in total sincerity with the hope of understanding what’s really important to the other person, it may result in a better overall picture of that person, and ultimately, it can only help in your on-going interactions.
Each of us has to come to some resolution within ourselves about our actions. In the case of my client, when the chairman asked him what really happened in New York, he said, “The good news, Bill, is that we closed the deal. I’m happy we can continue to do business with these folks under our new contract. It will really raise our revenue numbers for the year.” He actually answered the question and by-passed the implied question. The chairman smiled and shook my client’s hand. “Good deal!” he responded, and walked away.
Have a good week!
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