July 11th, 2010
Imagine that I’m the “confessor priest” in an IT project confessional environment, and a troubled project manager walks into my office, and tells me that in a fit of rage, he has just shot an obnoxious, uncooperative, unproductive members of his project team — point blank, right between the eyes. What should I do?
Or consider this variation: the troubled project manager walks into my office, tells me he hasn’t done anything extreme yet, but wonders if I’ll tell him that it’s okay to shoot the obnoxious member of his project team right between the eyes, and then defend him if senior management becomes unhappy about the situation. What should I tell the project manager?
Admittedly, these are extreme situations, and it’s entirely hypothetical. Maybe it happens in a war zone, but it certainly doesn’t happen in a normal IT project environment. In any case, it’s never happened to me. But the fundamental question still remains: where do you draw the line if/when serious ethical conflicts arise?
While the term “confessor priest” may be useful for the discussions in this series of blog postings, it’s important to remember that the consultants who play this role are not priests, in any official sense of the word. Nor are they journalists, with the legal option of protecting their “confidential sources.” It’s highly unlikely that they are psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, or anything else that would allow them to claim that statements from their project-manager “sinners” were confidential.
It’s one thing to negotiate a consulting agreement with an IT organization, in which the “confessor priest” states that his conversations with the project-manager “sinners” are confidential. And it’s one thing to refuse a demand to divulge those confidential details to a senior executive in the IT organization. Indeed, the consultant who takes on the role of “confessor priest” should be prepared to resign immediately if pressed on this issue. But if you’re questioned by the police, or the FBI, or a lawyer in a courtroom, it’s a different matter altogether; while I’m not qualified to offer legal advice, I’m pretty confident that the confessor-priest will have to answer questions, and reveal confidences, in situations like this.
So it’s important for the project-manager “sinners” who are thinking of asking for help to know that the “confessor priest” cannot help them if they have broken the law, or violated regulatory procedures and restrictions — especially when it comes to capital crimes, felonies, and things of that sort. Obviously, most project managers don’t run around murdering the members of their project team … but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a project manager could misrepresent an expenditure on an expense account or a procurement request, in order to provide some much-needed personal relief (e.g., a weekend of R&R at the beach) for an overworked member of his project team, which would be automatically rejected if requested through official channels.
The real issue typically involves “administrative” rules, and bureaucratic restrictions that kill productivity, frustrate the project team, and dampen morale to the point where the members of the project team have no energy or enthusiasm for their project. For example, one of the project team members wants to work at home from his laptop for a couple days, because his wife and kids are sick with the flu. One of the programmers wants to disable the company-installed Muzak system, because it’s driving him crazy having to listen to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby crooning over the PA system all day long. One of the network engineers desperately wants to take a day off in the middle of the week — against company rules — to attend a Rolling Stones farewell concert in a city 300 miles away, but says that he’ll make up for it by working both Saturday and Sunday.
These examples may or may not sound realistic, and they may or may not seem like issues worth making a fuss about. But there are issues worth making a fuss about, and the list of possibilities is endless. After he has agreed to such a request, the project manager may develop a guilty conscience, and may shuffle into the confessor-priest’s office and ask whether he has, in fact, committed a mortal sin.
The confessor-priest has to rely on his own experience, judgment, common sense, and gut instincts about what’s practical, what’s fair, and what “crosses the line” into areas that cannot be condoned or forgiven. Given the same situation, two different confessor-priests might make two different decisions; after all, we’re not talking about a formal religion, and there is no “Bible” to tell us exactly what we should do in every circumstance.
In my case, for example, I’m a firm believer in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to overlooking infractions of minor administrative/bureaucratic rules; but if asked a direct and specific question about such an infraction, I won’t lie to a senior executive in order to protect a project-manager “sinner.” At the same time, if I thought I was going to be interrogated by senior management about every possible infraction that might or might not have been committed, I wouldn’t take the assignment in the first place; or I would resign from the assignment as soon as it became clear that such a “corporate culture” was in place.
Again, everyone will have different opinions, assumptions, expectations, and behaviors when it comes to such ethical issues. It’s something for both the potential confessor-priest and the project-management sinners to think about before the issues arise … because, sooner or later, they will arise.
On to another aspect of the IT project confessional tomorrow…