Make time for ethics

Don’t let today’s rapid-fire project management environment kill your ethics instinct.


VOICES | In the Trenches


By Gwen K. Romack, PMP

Why not use the [Ethical Decision-Making Framework] prescriptively for at least one decision a week to start training yourself to ask its questions instinctively?

PROJECT MANAGERS, like other professionals, have seen their everyday working lives shift into overdrive in recent years. Most are expected to carry a smartphone, be accessible nearly 24/7 and make decisions instantaneously. Gone are the days of being able to ruminate on complex challenges and slowly analyze the facts until you reach a decision. Taking time to consider if one of the hundreds of micro-decisions you make every day drifts too close to an ethical line has become a luxury most project managers do not feel they have anymore. And the less time we spend thinking about ethics, the more our instinct to behave ethically weakens.

Many of us like to think we’d make the right call on an ethical issue if it really counted. But the day-to-day micro-decisions do really count. Stakeholders notice these decisions, even if you think they don’t. Whether you paint a rosy picture of a troubled project’s trajectory or cover for a colleague, micro-decisions can slowly build a stellar reputation or be the thousand tiny cuts that destroy it.


Take the team member who notices you tweaked the forecast due date to be closer to the actual one, or the client who sees that the acceptance testing protocol you used for the final report is not the one you agreed to before testing began. A seed of doubt is planted, and they begin to view all your promises with a trace of suspicion. The client starts wondering if other deliverables will come in as discussed and feels the need to micromanage. The team member doesn’t quite believe you when you promise that working hard on the project will pay off, and gradually turns his or her attention to other priorities. Trust is broken. Small issues that could have been solved if you had good relationships become big problems that threaten to destroy the project.

Had you stopped to realize the ethical implications of altering that due date or switching the testing protocol, you might have made a different decision or taken a moment to explain it to the stakeholders to avoid misperceptions.

Unfortunately, the duration and complexity of most projects today means many ethically questionable decisions won’t be detected at the organizational level for years, if ever. On shorter, simpler projects, feedback would have come sooner, and we would have had the chance to constantly refine our ethics instinct.


Institutions like PMI have become increasingly active in helping project managers with ethically charged decisions. The PMI Ethics Member Advisory Group developed the Ethical Decision-Making Framework (EDMF) as a practical resource to help project managers think critically and reach an ethical outcome. It’s a structured series of questions divided into five areas that help a project manager to navigate the facts, uncertainties and realities of a dilemma in order to take the right action. While the framework is intended to help project managers slow down and analyze what is more likely a macro-decision, it can be used to train our ethics instinct in micro-decisions as well. Why not use the EDMF prescriptively for at least one decision a week (macro or micro) to start training yourself to ask its questions instinctively?

Alternatively, organizations can provide leaders with scenario discussion guides to lead small-group discussions. The guides should engage the team in a meaningful discussion about specific real-world scenarios project teams may face, how their decisions can have unforeseen effects elsewhere, and how to thoughtfully mitigate those effects. Challenging project managers to consider all angles in these scenarios may help them apply the same critical thinking in their day-to-day situations. Another best practice is to tie these scenario discussion guides to the organization’s conflict of interest policy.

However it’s done, the goal is to start reversing our collective desensitization to the consequences of micro-decisions and retune our ethics instinct. Just as we train ourselves to respond instinctively and correctly in emergency situations, project managers need to ensure a finely calibrated ethics instinct is in place to support hundreds of daily micro-decisions. PM




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