When Doing the Right Thing Is the Wrong Thing

When Doing the Right Thing Is the Wrong ThingBack in the 1980’s, I worked for a company that promoted “Doing the Right Thing” as its slogan. The power of that message was overwhelming several decades ago, not as much as I would suppose that it would be today. People were longing to be associated with anyone or any entity that had an apparent desire to do the right thing. New customers, employees and suppliers were banging on the doors, wanting to be a part of this movement.

It didn’t hurt that, at the time, the company was just beginning to break through and was becoming recognized for its potential to become an industry leader. People figured that the company’s success so far was the result of doing the right thing, and they reasoned that doing the right thing would continue to produce similar, positive results. Having been a part of the company at this nascent stage, I witnessed first-hand the power of the attraction of “doing the right thing.” But I also learned that “doing the right thing” was not always the right thing to do. It all depends on what you mean when you say it.

I come from a background of, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” That’s what I was taught, so, like so many others, I assumed that everyone was taught the same. I forgot to take deception into account.

What does it mean to “do the right thing?”

It sounds virtuous, doesn’t it? That’s what attracted so many to this company ethic. We all want to be around people who are committed to doing the right thing. But, “the right thing” does not necessarily equal the virtuous thing. And therein, as William Shakespeare once said, lies the rub.

The slogan, “Do the Right Thing,” was cleverly crafted to BE the right thing to attract those new customers, employees and suppliers. It created a sense of partnership and loyalty that was, and still is, uncommon. But it was entirely one-sided, and defined entirely by the inner circle that ran the company. Let me illustrate.

In the second quarter of the 20th century, there was “a problem” in Europe. Adolph Hitler rose to prominence with a promise of “a final solution.” He had a plan to solve the problem. His plan was immoral, inhuman, and insane, but – and please bear with me here – he did “all the right things” to make it happen.

I use that illustration to gain your attention. Your ethics are defined by your goal. If your goal is pure, then “doing the right thing” means exactly what we first imagine it to mean. If you goal is nefarious, you still must do the right things to accomplish your goal.

Over a period of time, people began to realize that it was never the company’s goal to do the right thing. The company’s goal was dominance, and they were committed to doing all the right things necessary to accomplish that goal. And part of the right things that needed to be done was deceiving people into cooperating with them. They succeeded. As a result, while the inner circle prospered, others’ lives were destroyed by the power of deception.

Let me offer an example. In the company’s early days, it struck an exclusive supply agreement with a young manufacturing company halfway around the world. For two decades, that partnership seemed unbreakable. What people thought they were witnessing was a commitment to loyalty, which would seem like a commitment to the right thing. But, what was going on behind the scenes had nothing to do with loyalty at all. It was all about reaching the company goal of dominance. The two worked together for two decades to develop and introduce new electronic components to be distributed worldwide.

Then, one day, the relationship was over when my former company introduced its new line of identical products – manufactured by subsidiary company, based on the designs of the loyal manufacturer. The goal was never to partner. The goal was to develop a product line that they, themselves would control. But, getting from nothing to having a complete product line was a huge leap. The “right thing” for them was to use someone else to get them to their goal, then cut the cord and become the loyal supplier’s competitor.

Lesson learned: Be wise. Be discerning. Deception is not accomplished through direct opposition. We can believe deception simply because it sounds like the right thing. We need to understand that “doing the right thing” is not necessarily a moral standard for some people. It is simply doing what they need to do to get what they want.

Let’s stick to the highest moral and ethical standards and motives, so that what we are doing is not deceptive, but is, in fact, the right thing.

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