When Loyalty and Personal Integrity Pull Us in Opposite Directions

When staying loyal to our group conflicts with our deepest-held values, what should we do?


People are still reeling in disbelief over the improbable rise of Donald Trump as the Republican Presidential nominee. Many registered Republicans, party leaders and individual voters alike, are faced with a stark and excruciating choice – fall in line and support Trump or break ranks.

Some party leaders, like John McCain and Paul Ryan, have decided to support Trump despite their public statements about him being the antithesis of much of what they hold most dear. Are they to be lauded for being loyal to their party, or criticized for being hypocritical sell-outs?

Others like George H. W. Bush and Lindsay Graham refuse to support someone whose values, character and policy proposals are so at odds with their own. Should they be shunned for being disloyal or praised for being models of integrity?

We All Have our own Trump-like Dilemmas, Don’t We?

While the stakes are obviously much higher in a Presidential election, we’ve all had times when we’ve faced similar types of wicked problems as individuals and as organizations.

  • Have you ever felt that your job required you compromise on your personal values in order to be a “good team player” or to maximize your compensation or chances of promotion?
  • Has your company experienced tension between its commitment to social and environmental responsibility, improving short-term profits, or responding to competitive or market pressures? In weighing the trade-offs associated with different choices, which interests were given most weight?

Looking Through 3 Moral Lenses

Whether we are conscious of it or not, when facing such dilemmas we typically navigate our way through them using one or more of the following moral lenses. While there are merits to each, their ultimate value depends on how they are put into practice. Each has potential pitfalls that Buddhists refer to as near enemies, which are qualities that can masquerade as the original, but are actually unhelpful imposters that act as facades for hidden motives or distorted reasoning.

  1. Consequenceswhat determines the right course to take is based on what will most likely happen if we act or fail to act in a certain way. If the end result will be good for ourselves, our organization or our larger circle of stakeholders, then we use consequentialist reasoning to justify a less than purist adherence to our individual or shared values.  This pragmatic idealist path is based on a belief that the ends justify the means. Since companies (and countries) are complex systems that are nested within larger interdependent complex systems, however, predicting all of the outcomes associated with one decision is impossible. The relationship between cause and effect is non-linear, so we can only really deal within the realm of probabilities while acknowledging that unintended consequences are inevitable. Predicted consequences that are self-serving are often based on confirmation bias and other forms of self-delusion.
  1. Doing what is rightwe all adhere to a set of norms that fosters the type of group cohesion necessary to work together toward common goals. Making choices out of sense of duty to our co-workers, company or a larger purpose strengthens the bonds of trust and dedication that has helped to fuel human progress and win wars.  This deontological approach is often based on the assumption that our group and it belief system is inherently good (even with its flaws), and that competing groups or philosophies are inherently inferior so must be beaten using any means necessary.  The incentives to conform to group norms and rules can serve to disempower us as individuals, stunting the development of critical thinking skills and the capacity for discernment.

“Being able to exercise discretion enables one to develop practical wisdom. Rules and incentives crowd it out.”Barry Schwarz, Practical Wisdom

3.  Virtue ethicsAristotle held personal virtue to be the keystone to the perfection of one’s character, and as the only practical road to effective action. Virtue was viewed as an end in itself. The Stoics believed that since we have no control over the outcome of events, we should concern ourselves with what we can control – our own thoughts, words and deeds. By making a habit of cultivating the four virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and moderation we strengthen our character and develop a stable sense of tranquility that can’t be disturbed by things outside of our control.  Common near enemies of this approach are self-righteousness or aloofness.

“It is essential to grasp a distinction here between acceptance and resignation:  using your powers of reason to stop being disturbed by a situation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change it.” – Oliver Burkeman from “The Antidote”

At this point it may be tempting to decide which of the three is the best approach for every dilemma. But what if there is no best way? Or at least not one that applies in every situation.

Using Tension as Crucible

Think of a wicked problem at work that you or your company faced and dealt with in the past. Which of the above 3 lenses most informed the ultimate course of action? What was the outcome? By looking at the other two, would the decisions and outcomes have been different?

Now think of a current wicked problem, and consider it from all 3 perspectives:

  • What course of action will result in the highest good for all concerned? Is all relevant information being objectively considered? Have all stakeholders and their interests been properly accounted for?
  • What decision most reflects and reinforces the espoused values and norms of your company or profession? Will staying true to these hinder your ability to reach your goals?
  • What is your role and degree of influence? What decision most reflects your personal values? To what degree are these at odds with your company’s culture or policies?

It’s tempting to resort to one of the above as a tension-free default mode. But by avoiding the tension that arises from ambiguity on a consistent basis, larger tensions will inevitably build and cause greater and more complex problems down the road.

A pot in which metals or other substances are heated at very high temperatures is called a crucible. It’s also a fitting metaphor for facing a difficult test or challenge. By dealing with problems using all three lenses, we turn up the heat in ways that melt the illusion of certainty and control. For most of us, this is really uncomfortable. But by staying with it with a clear and strong intention, the chances of finding a pragmatic course between the extremes of selling out and self-righteous idealism become possible.


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