I’ve been thinking a lot this week about why people do things, and what they have in mind when they ask others to act in a particular way. It’s common to find that what people say is the reasoning behind their actions or requests isn’t the real motivation for either. I may do or say something that I claim is aimed at helping a colleague, but my real reasoning is that it will make me look good in the boss’s eyes. People make many requests that have ulterior, hidden motives. They often say things to manipulate others to do what they want. Internally, it’s called office politics, externally it’s called selling.

Questions of motivation and manipulation are important because they can undermine any leader’s authority. Leadership is an activity that comes with profound ethical and moral strings attached. You can try to deny or ignore them, but they’re still there. Doing the right thing from the wrong motives is a form of dishonesty that people nose out very rapidly.

I’ll start with the second point. It seems more and more organizations are establishing policies designed to help people create a better work/life balance. At the same time, survey results show people are working just as hard, and many employees are convinced that taking advantage of these new policies will harm their careers.

How can this be? The answer, of course, is doing the right thing from the wrong motives. Where organizations introduce policies to look good, but don’t really believe in them, it swiftly becomes obvious the policies are only for show. You take advantage of them at your peril. It’s much the same when managers make cosmetic changes based on the hope they will make employees feel better and they’ll work harder as a result. That’s manipulation and people resent it. The only acceptable reason—the only honest reason—for doing the right thing is that it’s the right thing to do, regardless of any other benefits or drawbacks. Helping people gain better work/life balance is the right thing to do. Punishing them for taking you up on your offer, or doing it only in the belief that people will be grateful and give you more work in return, reveal base motivations behind seemingly generous actions.

That brings me back to the first point.

There’s a kind of leadership attitude I call “business fundamentalism.” Like all other kinds of fundamentalism, it’s one-sided, dogmatic, conservative and intolerant of questioning. It’s proponents believe business decisions should be based solely on economic factors. For them, anything else is impractical.

The essence of fundamentalism is believing there is only one way—the one you favor—and rejecting anything (and anyone) that suggests other possibilities might be worth exploring. Business fundamentalists see little or no moral aspect to business decisions, even those that affect the lives of other people. They may even have current company law on their side, through its assumption of a financial duty to shareholders to maximize their returns.

This seems to me to be blinkered and inadequate. Leadership is about making decisions, and where there is a decision, there is a question of right and wrong. You cannot remove the ethical and moral aspects from leadership. Even supposedly hard-headed financial decisions come with ethical questions attached. Is it right to abandon a pension scheme, even though doing so will cut out millions of dollars in costs and help the organization survive in better shape? Is it moral to send jobs overseas and lay off higher-paid workers at home? No one doubts the financial benefits, at least in the short term, but are finances the only consideration? Should an assumed duty to maximize shareholder returns override one’s moral duty to employees and the wider community?

I’ll let you decide which side you want to come down on in this debate.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman and a retired business executive. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.

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