Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Do the Ends Ever Justify the Means?

Do the Ends Ever Justify the Means?

By Steven M. Worth

The laws of most nations allow tax-exempt status for organizations that can prove they serve a higher purpose--one that presumably benefits society as a whole. The promotion of a higher purpose--is perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the association sector. This characteristic is the association community’s strength, but it can also be its Achilles' heel.

It is easier to understand how the call to serve a higher good is a strength. Apart from the financial advantages of being tax-exempt, these organizations attract well-intentioned people who like the
idea of serving a cause that is greater than themselves. The idea of doing well by doing good is motivation enough for millions of people who volunteer their time and financial resources every day to organizations that have such a purpose.

Because these organizations do serve clearly defined purposes it is relatively easy for them to manifest a strong sense of mission; and therein lies a dangerous potential—that the nobility of the purpose may be used to justify somewhat less than noble tactics.

One definition of barbarism is when people act on the belief that the ends justify the means. If this is the case, then associations are arguably very temping places to cut corners and do things that might otherwise make civilized people blush. “Well,” the reasoning goes, “I wouldn’t do this normally, but it is all for a good cause….”

The danger of ethical violations within an organization is sometimes greater because employees might not even notice unethical practices until they are pointed out by an outsider. When this happens, it is not so much that the outsider has a grudge or even that they are more observant, ethical, or ingenuous than those inside the organization. Rather, these outsiders see problems that are sometimes invisible to those trapped in "group think."

“Group think” is the term coined by George Orwell in his book 1984 and recently resurrected by the congressional intelligence committee investigation of the US intelligence failures that preceded the tragedy of 9/11. Group think occurs in organizations that are too homogeneous, where uniformity of approach and thinking causes obvious danger signals to go overlooked. In the worse cases victims can “group think” their way into a fantasyland of self-deception.

All managers—but especially for the reasons noted above, all association managers--need to be mindful of the dangers of ethical violations that are inherent in their organizations. But more even than being mindful, managers need to take preventative action, including the following.

Define your organization’s principles, the values that should be inherent in everything your organization does or that people do on the organization’s behalf. Ideally these principles should be incorporated into your strategic plan and follow naturally on from your organization’s vision and mission. These points should be considered the organization’s “constitution” against which all plans and actions should be judged. If an action arguably helps achieve an organizational goal but in a way that violates your principles—then it cannot be allowed or encouraged with an unofficial “wink and a smile.”

Create and define the operational modes and constraints of a structure through which ethical violations are reported and investigated. You must ensure that the rights of all concerned parties are protected. The accused needs to be protected from unjust accusations, but neither should the reporting of ethical violations be so difficult or objectionable that whistle blowers are discouraged.

Actively promote and encourage diversity of backgrounds and opinions in your staff and volunteer leadership. There is nothing so pleasurable for a manager than to see a team jumping to a task and acting harmoniously as one. For a teacher the brightest pupil always seems to be the one that follows the teacher’s thoughts most closely.

But that staff member who sees things differently, who persists in apparent nonconformity, might actually be the manager’s best friend. That person is the one who is most likely to see the problems. Their apparently abrasive challenges will serve to polish your policies to perfection.

Do periodic organizational audits using resources that can operate at an arm’s length from your governance and operational structures. Despite all your precautions, know that you are too close to things always to see clearly. Incorporate periodic outside organizational audits into your good governance processes.

Too many unfortunate souls have learned that disasters can happen incredibly quickly and that laudable ends can be spoiled by faulty means. Search out these weaknesses—better yet, prevent them from occurring!

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