Ethical Consequences of "Pleasing the Boss"

This is a tale of a leader amassing too much power in an organization and the ethical consequences that shattered people, organization, and the public trust, just to “please the boss”.

Ah, you thought I was finally going to enter the political arena, right?  Sorry to disappoint.  On the few occasions where I did write or discuss something political I got nasty, ugly, mean-spirited comments.  I refuse to print those comments but let’s just say I choose my words carefully and my friends and clients even more carefully as a lesson learned from these experiences.

Although there are parallels to be drawn with the current state of American politics, I’m talking in this article about Carlos Ghosn, former CEO of Nissan, whose amassing of “absolute power” caused serious ethics and accounting lapses.  Ghosn conspired with several key employees to understate his pay, which in simplified terms resulted in false financial information, misappropriation of funds, understatement of income and serious governance conflicts.  Two Americans helped Ghosn escape Japan to avoid going to jail.  They are now being tried in Japanese court along with Nissan itself and others who helped Ghosn. To read more about this, here is a link to an article by the Financial Times.

One of the people testifying in court said that Ghosn’s abuses and actions led to a workplace and culture where everyone “just wanted to please the boss.”  I’ve worked in environments like this. They are toxic places with a complete lack of teamwork and an abundance of fear-based decision-making.  I remember having to force myself out of bed with a promise of something special at the end of the day just to keep going.  (Chocolate or ice-cream sometimes worked….)

The financial consequences for Nissan were large.  A $22M fine was imposed (2.4B Yen) for four years of under-reported income.  This is the second largest fine assessed in Japan.  (Toshiba was the largest.) Nissan has had 3 years of losses since then and they shut down some US plants. Their share price dropped 42%.  And this doesn’t include court costs and legal fees for defending the company or the loss in value of Nissan’s brand.  

Now, to be fair, there are positive reasons to please the boss.  After all, the boss is the one to decide whether or not to hire you, support you, promote you, give you a raise, and mentor you.  If you have a fair-minded leader that treats everyone fairly with respect and dignity, pleasing the boss can have great ethical consequences. 

However, if you are pleasing the boss just to avoid trouble, you need to dig a little deeper into the ethical consequences you’re willing to accept.

Here are just a few of the ethical consequences, both good and bad.

The good:

If you have a positive reason for pleasing the boss, one of the best consequences is honesty.  You’re more likely to be honest about mistakes, your capabilities, and what you have been able to accomplish.  You’re also more likely to be honest about giving credit where credit is due. 

Another positive ethical consequence is accountability.  You’re definitely more willing to own up to mistakes, especially if you are not afraid of being punished for them.  Good leaders use mistakes as “teachable moments” instead of reasons to punish.

And a third ethical consequence is strengthening your own ethical standards, even in the face of adversity.  This is a little harder to value, but in my mind this is the most important ethical consequence. It means you’re willing to do what you consider to be right and to accept consequences of your actions from a solid moral foundation. It also means you’re willing to stand up to the boss if you’re asked to do something illegal or unethical because you have looked at real facts and analyzed situations from various viewpoints in a level-headed manner before making decisions.

The bad:

When you’re trying to please the boss for negative reasons, the first ethical consequence is a loss of respect.  You can force people to do what you want, but you can’t force them to respect you. People will do the job but won’t “go that extra mile”.  Instead, they are more likely to disengage, treating their job as just time to fill rather than a steppingstone to a valuable and fulfilling career.

Another major ethical consequence is a breakdown in trust.  When this happens, people stop talking.  They stop sharing and collaborating with teammates.  They stop being absolutely honest for fear of reprisal. They speculate on what the next crisis will be and play favorites, micromanaging tasks because they are more intent on looking good and doing what the boss wants.  All of this results in lost productivity and confidence. 

A third ethical consequence is the erosion of integrity, even with proven facts and previous experience with similar situations.  Instead of relying on experience, technical skill competencies or just plain common sense, there is an atmosphere of denial and a focus on “spinning stories” to support their view.  People will do whatever keeps them out of the hotseat, even if they know their actions are against their own moral standards.  And when caught, there is outright denial of wrong-doing or even a hint of involvement. 

I challenge you to look at your work environment with fresh eyes and an open mind.  If you are pleasing the boss for negative reasons you have choices.  There ARE companies that have good leaders with a strong sense of ethics and culture. There ARE places to report your experiences safely and anonymously.  I will have more to say on this topic in an upcoming blog post titled “Getting Others To Do Your Dirty Work.”  For now, if you have questions you can reach out to me.

If you are someone who demands the utmost in loyalty and doing as you say, ask yourself if your efforts will ultimately help or hurt your team and the organization you work for.  Be honest with yourself and explore your own motivations.  Step outside of yourself to determine if you’re willing to accept the downside consequences that come with abuse of power – potentially destroying people’s lives, hurting the brand and organization you work for, and demolishing trust and relationships built over decades.  Are these consequences worth your personal gain?  And are you willing to lose your job or even go to jail for this?  I’d sure love to ask Carlos Ghosn this question.  Not sure I’d love the answer, though.

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