Why doing the right thing at work doesn't guarantee the right outcome, but it is still the best approach

Fri, 01 Feb 2013

Over the past year, I'm not the only person working in a bank who has been saddened to see a lot of colleagues, many of whom I'd call friends, leave the company not by their own choice.

Many of these people have been doing all the right things at work, demonstrating exactly the kind of behaviours that should be encouraged, for example:

  • being generous with their time

  • genuinely caring about other people

  • being proactive, both in terms of learning and in terms of proposing improvements

  • thinking more widely than about just your team, working to bridge silos

  • thinking about the impact of their work on the long term sustainability of the business

  • thinking about the impact of their actions on the environment and in the community

I would understand if people were starting to question whether this approach really makes sense.  Particularly as you are seeing others around you who don't display these behaviours (eg those who blindly do what they're told, or keep under the radar) moving ahead, or are seeing people being criticised for some of these behaviours that you know are right.

Firstly, I'd point out that doing the right thing doesn't guarantee the right outcome in the short term.  In fact, even in the long term, I can't honestly promise that the right outcomes will prevail.  Luck still plays a part, as do factors outside your control.  For example, you may be in a team that is no longer needed by your company.  You may have skills that, while valuable elsewhere, aren't what are needed right now.  Or you might have an insecure boss that feels threatened by your approach, or is under undue pressure from his/her boss.  No organisational performance management system is perfect.  At the end of the day, despite lots of people's best efforts to make things fair, the world isn't as fair as we'd like it to be.

That all said, I still believe it makes sense to do the right thing, in how we work as well as in other areas:

  • It will give you a more satisfying career - after all, would you really enjoy removing all proactivity, autonomy and purpose from your work.

  • You'll have the knowledge that you did the right thing, which is something that no one can take away from you.  In contrast, if you spend your time pandering to the peculiarities of one boss after another, trying to please them at the expense of yourself, the company or the world, you always be one tiny misfortune away from having it all taken away from you.

  • I do believe that people notice what you are like to work with, and how much you actually achieve.  And it is a small world.  I'd rather have future employers / colleagues know that I'm genuinely worth employing for the right reasons, than spend my time doing the wrong thing in order to protect my current job.

This doesn't mean you should ignore what managers tell you, or the frequently changing agendas - even if you disagree, there's still a lot to learn from them, and the ability to work in a team / organisation is important.  But, when it comes to deciding what you're going to do, and taking ownership of your career, I'd encourage people to stay strong and keep working in the way you know is right.