Your Guiding Principles

When asked to state our defining or guiding principles, most of us are quick to list a number of wonderful, virtuous, and relatively predictable sounding ideals. Who, for example, would not be quick to list "honesty above all else" as a guiding principle? That is, after all, a cornerstone of who we are all expected to be.

In the real world, however, our actual guiding principles—whether we choose to admit it or not—tend to be made up of a much less virtuous-sounding, though equally predictable list. Most of this list consists of ideas or strategies related to assuring our survival and comfort. Principles like "Don't rock the boat", "Don't compromise my potential for a raise or promotion", or "Increase the bottom line no matter what it takes" drive far more individuals and companies than do more positive sounding ideals.

Remember, though, that these less virtuous sounding principles are actually only problems if you refuse to acknowledge or change them. As an example, not wanting to rock the boat, in itself, never actually hurt a company. However, someone not acknowledging that they don't want to rock the boat - and therefore not learning how/when to rock the boat despite it being uncomfortable - can have a very significant negative impact. Reducing ethics risk starts with being honest about what currently drives you and your organization.

Have you taken the time to honestly assess your guiding principles as well as those of your company? Have you thought about where your 'real-world' principles may have the potential to promote unethical behavior, even if unintentionally? Doing so is one of the most critical first steps towards preventing ethics lapses and all the damage those lapses can create.

Christopher Bauer, Ph.D. runs Bauer Ethics Seminars and provides ethics keynotes and seminars for companies and associations who would rather prevent ethics problems than clean up after them. His latest book is "Better Ethics NOW: How To Avoid The Ethics Disaster You Never Saw Coming". Dr. Bauer also publishes a free Weekly Ethics Thought. Subscriptions are available at his website (

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