History PM Ethics (2)


In my previous Post we looked at the potential effect of failing to act (or appearing to) ethically on our careers.

Captain Rostron was eulogized and reached the pinnacle of his profession, where as Captain Lord lost his command and never met the expectations of his earlier career promise.

But what is the concept of Ethics?


The word ethics unsurprisingly comes from a Greek word Ethikos, which was further derived from Ethos. (Meaning custom/character) and was the subject of much study in the ancient world.

Ethics forms a major part in most religions, where there are a number of fundamental principles common to them all. (Not stealing or murdering to mention two)

However, despite the longevity and ubiquity of the concept, humans are not particularly clear or consistent in applying it. We have strong ingroup/outgroup biases which allow us to liberally interpret the application of the principles.

The 20th century was full of examples of demonizing a group to justify exempting them from the ethical protections of the society.

Our current political systems, and probably all past ones, are classic examples of this.

If the opposite party does something it is villainous and unprincipled, yet when our party does the same thing, we unsurprisingly perform all sorts of contortions to justify why it is clearly the right thing to do.

War is another area where we are very adept at maintaining double standards.

Churchill’s distinction between submarines and U-Boats is a classic if possibly slightly tongue in cheek, example.

Is it Legal

One question we often ask when trying to make ethical decisions: Is it legal?

However, the answer may be of little use to us, Apartheid1 and Jim Crow2 were both legal and contravening either could result in prosecution.

Clearly both systems were ethically wrong, and one can make the case that non-violent opposition to either could be ethically correct.3

In the Third Reich the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews which preceded it

were legal, and” The Rescuers”, German and citizens of occupied countries, risked their

own and their families’ lives to shelter Jews. This was clearly the ethical thing to do, but

how many of us would have had the courage.

Perry London’s study of these Rescuers found that an overwhelming percentage of

those interviewed identified an ethical role model from their childhood.


The following account, from Ken Macintyre’s book Rogue Heroes, illustrates that the ethical standards of many Germans sank to exceptionally low levels during the Nazi years.

A small group of SAS4 soldiers entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to find German guards in place. They were met by the camp commandant Josef Kramer and Irma Grese (responsible for the female prisoners) who offered them a tour of the camp.

A tour which beggared the imagination in its horror and inhumanity.

Kramer and Grese5 had volunteered to remain along with some guards to turn the camp over to the allies.6

One has to wonder, what were they thinking?

Did they have no concept of the depths to which their ethical values had sunk and expect the allies to just take control and for them to walk free?

Would we have had the courage to resist the corrosion of our inner being by the Third Reich? No doubt we would balk at participating in Belsen, but the corrosion of our ethics is slow and insidious, and it may lead us there.

James Clear in his book Atomic Habits tells us that behaviors often owe more to environment than to self-control.  

So, lest we feel over righteous, remember what my mother used to say:

“There but for the grace of God go I.”

Most of us will mercifully never have to make those kinds of decisions but throughout our careers we will be pressured to take actions which we are uncomfortable with, for the “common good”.

Ethics Sage

Maybe the answer to our problem lies in those learned academics who study and teach ethics.

Or maybe not!

According to Dr Steven Mintz, in an October 2020 post on his blog “Ethics Sage”, he outlines his ethical dilemma.7

He presented the evidence, of a faculty member who had plagiarized a paper, to his department head and the Dean. Both advised that he should do nothing because the college was amid a quality audit to determine if it would be re-accredited, and news of the plagiarism could affect the outcome. He thought about this and said he would have no option to go to the Vice President.

Resulting in the plagiarism being declared to the auditors and although they were not re-accredited that year, they were, after addressing the issue and putting processes in place, accredited the following year.

He also gives other examples which point to the fact that the teachers of ethics may be as liable to err as the rest of us.

Alexander and Hitler

Two difficulties we have when attempting to judge ethical behavior in history are celebrity and infamy.

For many Alexander, the Great is the golden boy of ancient times, the hero, the forger of empires, and a general beyond compare.

Whereas Hitler is the evil villain, and poster boy for all that is vile and unspeakable.

In the first podcast in the series Hardcore History8, presenter Dan Carlin compared Alexander to Hitler.

The result was that Alexander and Hitler may not have been that different.

Both invaded other countries and wiped-out countless people.

Alexander benefits from living in an era when that type of behavior was normal, and so chroniclers focus on his “noble deeds”, and generalship, and we see him as a hero.

Also, he won and died young.

Hitler on the other hand lived in modern times when these behaviors were not normal, and we view him as evil.

Also, he lost.

This should not be seen in any way to condone Hitler or his Reich, but it does caution us to be wary of celebrity and power, which can lead us to doubt and suppress our ethical values.

Sir Thomas More

One final historical example of standing by your principles is the 16th century example of Sir Thomas More.

More was a scholar, devout in his faith, with a successful political and family life.

Unusual for the time he educated his daughters to the same standards as his son.

He was a secretary and close advisor to the young Henry VIII. He eventually rose to be his Lord Chancellor. More a stanch believer in the Roman Catholic faith resigned his post, when efforts to arrange Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, led to English reformation and the establishment of the Church of England with Henry as the head.

Although he retired to a quiet life and did not speak publicly, he was eventually pressed to take the Oath of Supremacy9 which he refused.

He was arrested, tried, convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

Rather than take the simple expediency of signing he stood by his principles to the end.

Among his last words were:

 “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Project Management Institute Ethics

Given the Good the Bad and the Ugly examples above things may seem a little hopeless.

A common solution is to teach how to analyze and judge ethical choices.

This is generally the route taken by organizations and business schools.

Clearly this is an excellent way to address the problem, but if, as Dr Mintz indicated the professors are sometimes challenged with remaining ethical, what chance do simple project managers have?

Fortunately, PMI does provide a clear code of ethics based around four key values:

  • Responsibility
  • Respect
  • Fairness
  • Honesty

As project managers we should be aware of this standard and maintain organizations and project teams who embody these values.

PMI also provides an “Ethical Decision-Making Framework.

The framework is based around the 5 “A”s.

By stepping through the stages project managers can feel comfortable that they have correctly assessed the ethical issue and selected the correct course of action.

These and other documents relating to ethics can be found on the PMI website.

Giving Voice to Values

Undoubtedly teaching and advocating analysis and rigorous thinking is necessary and commendable, but often we already know the answer and fully understand the ethical course of action required.

The problem is that we are pressured or cajoled into compromising  or rationalizing away and ethical issue.

In a presentation at Olin College in 2010 Mary Gentile10, speaks about the time of her doubts regarding ethics education, which led her to work on the Giving Voice to Values (GVV).11

The origins of these doubt were the outcomes of exercises performed by MBA students which were as follows:

The students were asked to describe a time when their values conflicted with something, they were asked to do either directly or implicitly.

All student recorded at least one incident , and all the scenarios were remarkably similar.

  • Almost 50% said they bowed to the pressure and complied.
  • A smaller group would not comply, and removed themselves from the situation, by resigning or transferring, without openly refusing.
  • The final and much smaller group did try to take action and pushed back often using ingenious means.

The question facing Mary and all others seeking to promote  robust ethics was:

How could they enhance our ability and resolve to do the right thing?

This led to Giving Voice to Values where the principle was:

The Seven Pillars

Giving Voice to Values is based upon seven pillars:

  • 1.VALUES: Understand that there are universal core values and what they are.
  • 2.CHOICE: Know you have a choice.
  • 3. NORMALIZATION: Expect there will be conflict and stay calm.
  • 4. PURPOSE: Have a clear idea of your purpose before any conflicts.
  • 5. SELF KNOWLEDGE and ALIGENMENT: Act your values constantly and build your strength.
  • 6. VOICE: Practice voicing your values, so that your position is clear before any conflict.
  • 7. REASONS and RATIONALIZATION: Be aware of the likely arguments and tactics, that will be used against you.

See UT Austin’s McCombs School of Business website which gives an excellent summary of the seven pillars.12


We have seen that despite a long and illustrious history ethics is often disregarded or rationalized away.

We must therefore be on our guard against abuses of our systems.

Irrespective of a person’s level within an organization they often feel unable to buck the system and make a stand for ethical values.

Entry level personnel wistfully think that when they are CEO, they will be in a position to make a stand for ethics, but their lowly position means they cannot comply with their ethical values.

Meanwhile CEOs lament the fact that they have so many conflicting pressures that prevent them from complying with the ethical standards. If only they were a lowly employee, they would be able to make a principled stand.13

By adopting and applying the seven pillars of Giving Voice to Values, you prepare and armor yourself against the arguments of the non-ethical.

Remember it will not be some hideous monster that asks you to set aside your ethical values for the good of the team, but just another ordinary person.

As I was close to completing this post, I read an article on the BBC website titled,

“Nazi Ravensbrück camp: How ordinary women became SS torturers”.14

In the article Selma van de Perre, a survivor of the camp was asked:

If she thinks the guards were diabolical monsters.

Her reply is a warning:

“I think they were ordinary women doing diabolical things. I think it’s possible with loads of people, even in England. I think that can happen anywhere. It can happen here if it’s allowed.”

We should be vigilant and take note of the wise advice of Master Yoda.

Top Lesson for Project Managers

What can we do as project managers?

  • Take advantage of all the material available from PMI and become as familiar with the ethics codes of practices, as you are with technical subjects.
  • Assume that you will be asked to do something unethical and prepare your responses in advance.
  • Encourage and educate your team members and colleagues in the Ethics Codes and Giving Voice to Values.
  • When performing lessons learned make sure to include ethical considerations as well as technical and fiscal ones.


1Apartheid – Was a system of racial segregation and persecution operated in South Africa between 1948 and the early 1990s.

2Jim Crow – Was a system of racial segregation and persecution operated in the Southern United States between 1870s and 1965.

3Clearly if considering certain actions there is a danger in veering into unethical behavior. For example, was John Brown’s violent seizure of Harpers Ferry in 1859, to insight a slave rebellion, an unethical act? Clearly the religious Brown did not think so.

4SAS – Special Air Service founded by David Stirling in 1941 and considered to be inspiration for all modern special forces.

5Kramer and Grese dubbed the Beast of Belsen and Beauty of Belsen, were subsequently tried found guilty of war crimes and hanged.

6WWII Nation gives a detailed account of the incident.

Through the Gates of Hell: The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen – By Mark Simner (ww2nation.com)

7You can view this dilemma and many other aspects of ethics here.

Challenges to Ethical Behavior For Ethicists – Ethics Sage

8Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Current Hardcore History Available for Free (dancarlin.com)

9The Oath of Supremacy required the individual to swear allegiance to Henry VIII (and subsequent Monarchs) as the head of the Church of England.

10Mary’s presentation can be viewed on YouTube.

“Giving Voice to Values” – YouTube

11More details can be found in her book Giving Voice to Values.

12UT Austin McCombs School of Business.

Giving Voice to Values – Ethics Unwrapped – UT Austin (utexas.edu)

13Giving Voice to Values” – YouTube

14 Nazi Ravensbrück camp: How ordinary women became SS torturers – BBC News


  • Rogue Heroes – Ken Macintyre
  • Giving Voice to Values – Mary Gentile

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Rashid N. Kapadia

    Nice and important article Jim.
    This two sentences stood out as particularly insightful and important.
    “Two difficulties we have when attempting to judge ethical behavior in history are celebrity and infamy.”
    “Meanwhile CEOs lament the fact that they have so many conflicting pressures that prevent them from complying with the ethical standards. If only they were a lowly employee, they would be able to make a principled stand.”

  2. Jonetta Barnett

    This is a very insightful article on a topic that is timely to every generation. Ethics in business is not just a title in your SOP manual. Thank you for bringing to light what history proves over and over. The lack of Ethics is what turns an ordinary person into a person doing diabolical things. This is an article that should be read by everyone. I look forward to reading your next article.

  3. Wilonda Ieans

    Exceptional article and timely topic on Ethics! I enjoyed the how the past leaders/authoritarians tied into reading.

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