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(p. 215) Risking Your Job: On Striving to be an Ethical Leader in Difficult Organizational Circumstances 

(p. 215) Risking Your Job: On Striving to be an Ethical Leader in Difficult Organizational Circumstances
(p. 215) Risking Your Job: On Striving to be an Ethical Leader in Difficult Organizational Circumstances

Rodney L. Lowman

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In a book intended for mental health professionals, this case may seem anomalous. Yet increasingly, mental health professionals—like it or not—will find themselves in managerial and leadership roles. This means they will have responsibility for others’ behavior at work and if they rise through the ranks to any degree, they will have responsibility for overseeing larger and larger parts of an organization. How can mental health professionals who serve as managers retain their ethical integrity and their professional values while working in the “real world” of people with a variety of motives, not always benevolent? The case I present here is a combination of some of several managerial situations blended to make a single case. As an amalgam, this case touches on ethical quandaries from several of my personal organizational experiences.

I once served in an academic leadership role. Although my position was reasonably high up in the organization, I had both a boss and a boss’s boss. After working in this role for a year or so, I hired a number two, a senior leader chosen as the “second in command” in my part of the organization. This hire was intended to fill a position that had been vacant due to an illness. The prior “second” had been well regarded, and I regretted that, for health reasons, he felt it necessary to take an early retirement. (p. 216) As typically happens in academic settings, a search committee was formed and in this instance recommended three finalists to be brought to campus for interviews. One of the three dropped out of the search early for personal reasons. The second came for a campus visit and quickly decided he did not want to leave the comfort of his own institution for the uncertainties of this one and its somewhat isolated geographical area. The third candidate engendered mixed feelings among the search committee members, some of whom favored continuing the search while others found the candidate acceptable. The individual in question had a history of leadership in the corporate sector before returning to school to obtain the necessary terminal degree in her particular content area.

She pushed very hard for the job, and because I felt somewhat desperate to have someone in the position, I hired this candidate when the other two fell through. I worried a little at the time that the search committee, a broad and representative one, had not acted with more unanimity or even enthusiasm in its recommendation of this candidate and that she seemed to want the position a bit too much, but I decided other considerations outweighed these doubts.

For the first few months, things seemed to go well with this individual in her new role. She worked with considerable energy and apparent enthusiasm on her assignments, which involved tasks I could not closely supervise because of the demands of my own position and the diversity of areas in which she had to work. A few months into her tenure, however, a curious pattern of events began to emerge. A controversial decision had been made by a senior official at the institution (and assigned to me to implement) that would adversely affect students’ fees. Because the institution found itself in trouble financially (I have generally been attracted to turnaround and start-up situations), it became necessary to generate more income. For fiscal reasons, we had to close that gap; I had to administer the directive by implementing a fee increase plan. Like many financially driven decisions in academia, this one proved necessary but unpopular, generating a lot of student and faculty angst. An implementation committee made up of students, faculty, and administrators chaired by the new number two began work.

Not long after this, I started to receive complaints from some of those in my supervisory line of reporting that criticisms about me, my leadership style, and my role in this particular implementation plan had begun to flow. Because this particular institution was located in a fairly small city in the South, word of these complaints had quickly reached into the community. One of the local trustees, the head of one of the locally large employers and a self-made businessman with a reputation for hot headedness, quickly raised concerns with certain officials at the university about complaints he had heard. In no case had (p. 217) anyone come to me directly about their concerns. I was apparently being castigated in ways that seemed very disproportionate to my role in the issue at hand. Over time, it became clear that the individual I had hired in the number two role had the apparent goal of ousting me so she could get my job, and she had begun subtly but systematically undermining me and my authority.

The style this individual employed was crafty and frankly sneaky. Despite meeting with me several times a week, she rarely brought up any issues related to the concerns that were being raised or her own role in fomenting them. Instead, I began to learn about these indirectly. I also discovered from confidential sources that she bitterly resented my efforts, which I regarded as mentoring, to guide her in a new position and that she wanted to be left totally alone to make her own decisions and, clearly in this case, to undermine me.

In time, I began to receive confidential calls from certain members of the university community identifying the senior manager as making disparaging remarks about me at every opportunity. Always, I was told, her remarks came framed in a manner more laden with innuendo than directness, but the intended meaning was quite clear. In time, subordinates started complaining that the conflict between the two of us made it difficult for them to get their work done.

Unfortunately, in this particular case, by the time I learned from a number of separate sources what was really going on, the problematic number two person had already done much damage. As information slowly started coming in about what was really going on (and as I struggled to address the concerns of some senior officials who suddenly began perceiving me as a problematic manager), I confronted the individual with what I had heard, my concerns about what she had said and done, and my concerns about the ethics of her behavior. She denied doing anything problematic and said that others had misunderstood her communications. Because she had complained about me in a way suggesting we did not get along well, I began to meet with her specifically on issues about which she had been quoted. I tried to make clear to her that it was essential that the two of us work out any differences we may have, and she continuously denied that any existed, that she reported liking the institution and working for me. It was only through the information obtained by “moles” (essentially spies who reported back to me on her behavior in sessions in which I was not present) that I obtained evidence of her continued efforts to undermine me. It became nearly impossible, however, to undo the reputational damage that she had caused.

Managing one’s own emotions is a challenge in any situation like this. As a psychologist, I would like to think well of others and assume there always can be a common meeting ground even when there is conflict. I would also like to (p. 218) think that people deal with you directly and honestly. As a leader and as a human being, however, working with duplicitous, angry, deceptive people brings out other emotions. When a work environment like this has become overly polluted with fear, distrust, and divisiveness by behavior you consider unfathomable, paranoia can be a leader’s natural reaction. Thoughts such as these were not infrequent: I hired this person, how could she do this to me? How could anyone be so stupid as to take at face value the utterances of anyone as dumb, inexperienced, and disrespectful as this? How could people dislike me enough to take sides in issues as silly as these? How could I have made such a hiring mistake? These are reactions a leader cannot afford to share with others or even to hold, at least not for very long. It is like receiving the sudden and unexpected diagnosis of a terrible disease: you have to get beyond “How could this happen to me?” to accept that it is happening and then formulate a plan to deal with those whose motives and actions are not benign. And if those to whom you report do not understand the dynamics of what is happening or support you in addressing them, there may be few options but to resign. That is what I ultimately chose to do in this situation. That said, I did not feel that I had to compromise my ethical values by stooping to the level of those who, in my opinion, were maliciously and vindictively fighting dirty. Then and now, I would rather not be in a job than behave in a way that is incongruent with my values, beliefs, and ideals.


Key ethical issues

What is the appropriate and ethical thing to do in circumstances such as those described in this case? When dealing with another professional, one can almost always find a set of behavioral guidelines that say what one must (and must not) do. If any questions about their behavior come up, one can always find a rule book against which to evaluate their behavior. But as I have noted, managers do not hold any particular ethics code by virtue of their managerial profession. Nor is there any ethical tribunal to say that a manager or leader has screwed up or behaved unethically. At best, an organizational or institutional code of ethics or a set of values may exist, but these statements often prove to be lofty aspirations rather than enforceable standards. Particular industries may have laws and rules that constrain or mandate conduct, but these address mostly extreme behavior, not the petty conflicts that often constitute the realities of day-to-day organizational life. In my own case, I took inspiration from (p. 219) the APA Ethics Principles, especially Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility, which states, “Psychologists establish relationships of trust with those with whom they work,” and Principle C: Integrity, which states, “Psychologists do not steal, cheat, or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact. Psychologists strive to keep their promises and to avoid unwise or unclear commitments.” Yet in both cases, these were broad general guidelines that really did not tell me precisely how to behave. I also kept in mind the APA ethical standard 3.04 Avoiding Harm, “Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their… supervisees… [and] organizational clients, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.” In each case, however, these principles did not exactly apply to working with nonpsychologists, nor, it could be argued, was I functioning as a psychologist when acting as a university administrator. Such principles did keep me focused on what by nature I was inclined not to do (stoop to the low level of behavior of my subordinate) and reminded me there were higher principles at stake than my “winning” a fight.

In leadership roles, one must make many decisions, often affecting others’ lives. When taking on responsibility for people in an organization, one must also take responsibility for setting the tone in terms of values, norms for acceptable or unacceptable behavior, and appropriate methods for addressing problematic behavior. Hopefully, your values remain consistent with those of the institution, or at least your part of it. Sometimes, however, that is not the case, and as a professional who finds him- or herself in leadership roles, you will have to decide what kind of ethical tone you wish to set and whether you can live with an institution that, in its actual behavior, practices values you find objectionable, sometimes abhorrent.

Work setting

Throughout my professional career, I’ve found myself in key administrative positions in which credentials as a psychologist were not an essential requirement for the job. I say “found myself” because I can’t really say that I started out my career expecting to take on a leadership or management position, and my occupational interest patterns always looked more like those of a psychologist than those of the prototypical manager. Still, I have had more than my share of senior leadership positions, particularly in academia, and I have to say that every one of them has proved interesting but also presented its share of ethical challenges.

Among the professional roles I’ve served in over the years include serving as a department head, a dean, provost/vice president for academic affairs, (p. 220) acting university president, and a president in various academic institutions. I’ve also served as a senior leader in mental health settings and have run a private practice. For the most part, I’ve felt like I almost always stayed faithful to at least the spirit of my ethical standards as a psychologist even when not serving in a position that required (or even considered desirable) a professional background as a psychologist. But I have encountered a few situations while serving as an administrator in which I felt uniquely challenged and pressured to act in a manner not consistent with my principles, and I must occasionally deal with unethical behavior on the part of nonpsychologist subordinates or associates from the perspective of my own ethical standards.

I consider the essence of a manager’s job to involve figuring out quickly and accurately what needs doing and then to help make that happen working through and with other people. Of course, strategy becomes involved in getting the goals right, but even when the goals appropriately target what the department or organization most needs, one must also enlist others to cooperate in getting the work successfully done. Depending on the level of the position, the job also usually involves the day-to-day oversight of others and making sure their work gets done properly, encouraging some and addressing the performance needs of others. And always, personnel matters will arise in addressing the needs or issues raised by employees—particularly the disgruntled or ineffective ones.

In thinking about ethics, one of the defining characteristics of a professional role involves adherence to a particular code of ethics. Although members of a profession usually receive careful training in the ethical expectations and required behaviors of their profession, a mechanism for enforcement where one can levy ethical complaints usually exists. For most professionals, behaving ethically is not simply an aspirational, “nice to do” thing. In contrast, as a manager or leader, one typically has no generally accepted professional codes of ethics and, other than through the courts when addressing extreme behavioral problems, no enforcement mechanisms when encountering ethically questionable behavior.


I wish I could say that behind-the-scenes undermining and mischievous behavior by subordinates only rarely occurs. In fact, an organization is composed of individuals, each of whom has his/her own motives, network of allies and partisan groups, and a complex network of connections within the system that characterize any large organization. If mental health professionals have an obligation to follow consistent ethics and motives in their professional behavior, the same cannot always be said for organizational members.

(p. 221) I have to admit that by training and temperament I am not very well suited to deal with dishonest and undermining individuals. As a result, I am sure I miss cues that others, more sensitive to power dynamics, may quickly pick up and thwart. I generally expect people to behave honestly and directly and when, for whatever reasons (e.g., anger, greed, mischievousness), people pursue a negative, hostile, and undermining agenda, I often miss it until it is too late. I struggle with the ethical dilemma of whether to stoop to the level of my attackers, enlisting spies who report to me on problematic individuals’ behavior, or whether I should rely on my natural instincts to assume integrity and honesty on the part of others until clear evidence to the contrary exists.

In my opinion, the best way to deal with this kind of conflict is not to get into it in the first place. By carefully choosing the organization or part of the organization in which you work, you will assess whether these are people and this is an organization to which you feel good about attaching your name.

Sometimes, however, such as in a bad economy or when the jobs dry up due to too many professionals chasing too few jobs, you take what you can get and feel lucky to have any job, particularly one that pays benefits. Alternatively, you may make a move because you want to progress upward or are looking for a new place to live for personal or professional reasons. Or the players may have changed and the people who hired you are replaced by those you don’t respect. When, by circumstances or error, you find yourself in an organization in which behavior you consider unethical is tolerated, or when (as is often the case) the players change and the old rules become new ones that no longer work for you, it will be time to decide whether you stay or go and whether you confront what you consider objectionable or suffer in silence. Your job may be at risk if you object too strenuously or if you speak truth to power, but your integrity and sense of professional identity may be at risk if you don’t. As a psychologist, I remain sensitive to my obligation under standard 1.03 of the APA Code: Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands. When, as an employee or as a consultant, an organization asks or requires me to behave in a way that would undermine the spirit—if not the letter—of my professional code of ethics, I am obligated to make this conflict known, try to resolve the conflict amicably, and in all cases, adhere to the APA Code of Ethics. In this case, I was compelled to cut ties with an organizational context likely to ultimately compromise my ethical integrity.

I would be remiss if I did not communicate just how strong the pressures can become to tolerate behavior in some institutional settings with which a professional may take exception. It is easy to behave ethically when working in an ethically supportive environment in which you feel you are valued for what you do well and for behaving ethically in complicated situations. It is much (p. 222) more difficult to maintain an ethical stance when you must fight for your values and ethics in an environment in which those values are not respected and in which the people with whom you work are behaving inappropriately. Few ethical codes for mental health professionals have yet considered that many of their members will serve as leaders and managers during some part of their career. Until there are clearly defined codes for practice as an ethical professional who is also a manager, you will to some degree be struggling in that ethical wilderness on your own.

Would I handle the situation differently in the future? I would certainly attempt to identify unprofessional colleague behavior early on, and I would be less concerned about trying to work through the issues if they were not amenable to early change efforts. I would try to act swiftly to protect my subordinates by terminating someone who was wreaking havoc in the organization no matter how long a contract she or he may have. And I would have better sources in the organization with whom to get an early warning of misbehavior by a direct report.

You may think that issues like these will not happen to you. Chances are, however, that sometime in your career you too will find yourself in a managerial or leadership role. There are many rewards in such roles, but don’t ever forget that first and foremost you are a professional or ignore your code of ethics just because it does not explicitly address issues such as these.

Key ethical principles and standards

APA (2002): Principle A (Beneficence and Nonmaleficence), Principle B (Fidelity and Responsibility), Standard 1.03 (Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands), Standard 3.04 (Avoiding Harm).

References and Further Reading

Drucker, P. (1974, 2008). Management (Revised Edition). New York: HarperCollins.Find this resource:

    Lowman, R. L. (2006). The ethical practice of psychology in organizations (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. The Psychologist-Manager Journal. Taylor & Francis.Find this resource: