Tag Archives: ethics

Keeping community focused

I just came across a post from Seth Godin titled The worst voice of the brand is the brand. He says:

When a doctor rips off Medicare, all doctors are seen as less trustworthy.

When a fundamentalist advocates destruction of outsiders, all members of that organization are seen as intolerant.

When a soldier commits freelance violence, all citizens of his nation are seen as violent.

When a car rental franchise rips off a customer, all outlets of the franchise suffer.

Seems obvious, no? I wonder, then, why loyal and earnest members of the tribe hesitate to discipline, ostracize or expel the negative outliers.

“You’re hurting us, this is wrong, we are expelling you.”

I’ve seen this phenomenon many times: a group of talented, enthusiastic, passionate people (Linchpins) get together, form a group dedicated to a purpose…. and then rip it apart with politics, infighting, and backstabbing. I wrote about the phenomenon in Working with multiple linchpins: in most cases, the problem is not that you can’t get people to work, but that you can’t get people to stop working… or to agree on which direction the work should go.

This centrifugal tendency of linchpin-y groups is often used as evidence that a flat, democratic organization full of strong-minded individuals cannot compete with a hierarchical autocratic organization full of obedient sheep. But in fact, I believe the problem is a single misconception held by many communities:

“Equal and democratic” does NOT mean you have the right to act in ways that damage the community

It means that no one person has the right to tell others what to do. It means that every person must submit to the agreed-upon decision-making process. But if someone in the group is acting in a way that is detrimental to the purpose and process of the group as a whole, then the others in the community have not only the right, but the obligation to oppose those actions.

How to stop your worst voices

Set clear expectations

I discussed this in Working with multiple linchpins also: it’s almost impossible to get a bunch of linchpins working together unless you’ve all agreed ahead of time on what you’re trying to do, and how you’re going to get there. So make it clear what the group goals are, and make sure everyone knows that they’re expected to contribute to those goals.

Step in early

Maybe it’s just me, but I always have a hard time figuring out where to draw lines. If someone makes a comment that’s only a little offensive, do you say anything? If so, how do you justify slamming down hard on someone who’s only a little out of line? But if not, then how do you justify slamming down on the next comment, that’s only a little more offensive? Or the one after that, or the one after that?

The best solution I’ve found is to try to react in direct proportion to the offence. Instead of attacking all-out (“HOW DARE YOU SAY SUCH A THING! HAVE YOU NO RESPECT!”), I might respond to a mild insult with “Wow, that was harsh.” In most cases, mild reprimands will communicate your concern, and the other person will change their behavior. But in cases where it’s not enough, you’ve established a precedent for a more severe reprimand when the behavior continues.

Plan for negative outliers

When you set out the goals of the group, and work out a decision-making process, also decide how to handle someone who doesn’t comply with those decisions. Who will decide whether the accused is indeed in violation of the agreements, and how? How should group members handle someone they believe to be in violation of the agreements? What consequences will result from violating the agreements, and who will decide on them? As with all other decisions, these questions can be answered with a trial and jury, by a single executive, by group vote, or whatever other method fits your group and your circumstances. But having these agreements made ahead of time can prevent a lot of standing around, shuffling feet, glancing sideways at each other and wishing someone else would take care of it.

What else have you found helpful in keeping a community healthy and productive?

Is Marketing & Sales Unethical?

I’m writing in response to a blog post on SEOMoz by randfish, discussing whether SEO is immoral. (Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the process of modifying the layout, structure, and content of your website in ways that will make your site more likely to appear high in search engine results.)

The question, as posed:

    We search for relevance via the search engine. By learning and manipulating the system to accomplish its goal, SEO makes it more likely that you will come upon a target that is irrelevant. Thereby, wasting the user’s time and resources. It could be considered advertising in the form of a search result.

    Is this misleading and counter to the public welfare?

Randfish argues that in fact, SEO is almost always used to make you come upon search results that are more relevant, and that it’s no more misleading and counter to the public welfare than any other form of marketing and advertising.

Is Marketing Unethical?

While I agree completely, I’m not sure that his argument helps much, since a good number of people feel (at least vaguely) like all marketing and advertising is “misleading and counter to the public welfare”. So that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Lying is Unethical

So let’s start with a basis on which we can all agree: advertising that states or implies untrue things is unquestionably misleading and counter to public welfare (and also illegal).

Lying by omission (“Well, you didn’t ask if this car would explode when rear-ended”) is also immoral (although it has more of a gray area based on what you might reasonably expect a customer to ask about; it is also more frequently legal).

So I am assuming, for the purposes of this discussion, that all the ads, all the marketing ideas and sales pitches and SEO techniques that we’re discussing are accurate, true, and disclose all important negatives (indeed, I’ve argued that you’re better off disclosing all negative features when you’re trying to make a sale).

Putting forth good arguments

In that case, marketing or sales both come down to making good arguments in favor of buying. Any type of persuasion can be done on an unethical basis (persuading voters to elect a new politician by spreading lies about the incumbent, for example), but barring those, sales is simply a matter of making your product look as attractive as (honestly) possible, using facts, analogies, lighting, testimonials, placement, and so on. (SEO is, in most cases, simply working to make the customer aware of the product at all).

Our question then: is that unethical?

The Moral Obligation to Look Bad

Turn it around: if making your product look good is immoral, than morality must lie in making your product look bad. For example, Ford Motors must not say

    Our trucks don’t last as long as many cars, since most of our customers use their vehicles so hard that they’ll need to get a new truck every few years anyway. They have a lot of power for hauling heavy loads and moving quickly, although you pay for that with lower gas mileage. And they look great.

But is morally obligated to say

    Sure, our trucks look good and have a lot of power, but the gas mileage is terrible and they’ll only last a couple of years

    (Honda would presumably be reciprocally obliged to say “Our cars get great gas mileage and they last forever, which means you’ll have to spend 20 years in the slowest, weakest, dinkiest car on the road”)

Should politicians be banned from using pictures of themselves in suits & makeup, and be required instead to use pictures with uncombed hair in their bathrobes, taken with a cheap disposable camera?

Should artists assembling a portfolio be required to include only their bad works, and none of their good? Should a band applying for a record contract be required to use uncut tracks made on cheap mono-feed recorders, preferably on a day the lead singer had laryngitis?

Neutrality isn’t usually an option

The simple and obvious answer is to avoid making your product look good or bad: simply put it out there neutrally and let people make their own decisions.

But how do you go about making a neutral presentation? As you can see, simply reversing the order in which data is presented can have a huge effect on whether it looks good or bad, and you have to present it in some order.

And it’s easier to lie with huge reams of data, anyway. Think Enron: all the data about their business was in their SEC reports, which you would think is as neutral a document as you could desire. But ALL their business data was in that report, making it easy to hide the few bits of incriminating data.

Is it immoral to look good?

So in most cases, neutrality is not possible, and we’re back to two choices: Are you morally required to make yourself look bad? Or may you, within the bounds of accuracy, truth, and legality, make yourself look as good as possible?

I cannot answer this question for you, of course. Many people through history have decided that looking good is a sin — some sects of Judaism, many of the Puritans that immigrated to North America, and some parts of Islam — and dictate a hunched posture and shapeless clothing. Every person must make their own ethical judgement.

But I stand on the side of presenting yourself well.

This article was cross-posted on my business blog, NeoAgora Marketing. You can browse there for more information onsmall business marketing if you’re interested.

Is It Evil To Make Money?

There’s a pervasive notion in our culture that being rich automatically means being sleazy, greedy, and uncaring (and admittedly Hollywood residents don’t help a lot with dispelling that stereotype). There’s also a pretty strong feeling among many people that not working for your money makes you bad or greedy or lazy.

If you strongly believe in not making money, I won’t try to change your mind; I strongly believe in letting people decide for themselves. But I’d like to other some alternative points of view that might help you in deciding where you stand.

Money Myths

Any time you argue with a belief that’s widely held in society, you have to call it a myth; that’s the rule. But in fact most of these ideas have a pretty sound basis. None of them are 100% wrong. But I think many of them are overgeneralizations, and I’d like to point out some distinctions that I think are important ones.

Money Is the Root Of All Evil

Actually — if you look in 1 Timothy 6:10 — you’ll find that what Saint Paul said is that love of money is the root of all evil. Money itself can do good things or bad things — the church collects money, after all — but to love money, to desire it for its own sake, and especially to love it more than God, more than people, more than goodness, more than virtue… that may not be the root of all evil, but it is the root of a whole lot of it.

On the other hand, loving most things is good. If you love your kids and want to send them to college — wanting money for that is not evil. If you love your partner and want to make sure they’d be safe even if you were hit by a truck — wanting money for that is not evil. If you love 3rd-world countries or inner city kids or spotted owls or cancer victims, and want money to help them get out of their bad situations — wanting money for that is the opposite of evil. So I think it’s an important distinction.

Why do you want money? What would you do with it if you had it?

Making a business is less work than getting a job

Owning a business is less work than getting a job once the business has been built. But my experience so far suggests that actually building the business is as much work as 40 years’ worth of employment, rolled into one decade. Certainly it’s much harder work.

At my day job, all I have to do is show up, do what my boss tells me to, and be average enough not to get fired.

In my business I have to motivate myself, plan where the business is going, decide the most important thing to do today, and be good enough to compete with every other business in my industry, including some really big companies. I must have or learn self-discipline, organization and planning, and prioritization, as well learning enough in my field to excel at some aspect of it.

It’s a lot harder than my day job. But I love it. It’s work that challenges me. It’s work that makes me a better person. And I hope that it’s work that makes a difference, that by my writing this blog, making my time management website, I can make some people’s lives a little easier.

What kind of work do you want to do? How much are you willing to do?

Power Corrupts

This one is the most true of all. It’s very easy to take advantage of having power — any kind of power, and money is a great example — to do things that you wouldn’t if other people had the courage to scold you for it. And it is a risk of being rich; we see it all the time in our tabloids.

But you can also abuse power without being rich. Being promoted to manager was a test of power and character for me; would I use it to force my coworkers to do things my way, and to do the grunt work I didn’t want to do? I made a few bad decisions; but getting the promotion, and seeing the results of those bad decisions, has made me a stronger, better person. Losing my temper was no big deal when it only affected me; learning to keep it was much more critical when it had the power to affect half a dozen people who I liked and respected.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” — Abraham Lincoln

What challenges would face you if you were given power? What would you have to change about yourself to be able to handle it? Would you be a good leader? What would have to change for you to be able to say yes?

Other things to consider

Most Men Live Lives Of Quiet Desperation

Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately, away from the prejudices and preconceptions of society. And one of the things he found there is that, when you take a look at it, most people are pretty unhappy with their lives, due in large part to money or lack thereof. Or, to sum up middle-class America succinctly: most people go to a job they hate so they can spend money they don’t yet have on things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.

And living like that is crazy. Everyone knows that, at some level. Blogs like The Simple Dollar and Zen Habits help you with this problem by helping you recognize which expenses can be cut from your life without problems; blogs like Itty Biz and Personal Development for Smart People offer advice on making more money without going to work every day. But everyone agrees that you need to do something.

What would you do if you didn’t have to go to work, ever again? It’s all very well to say that you’d play golf all day, or lie on a Caribbean beach. But you know as well as I do that you’d get tired of that after… oh, say, a year or so. And you’ve probably got more than a year left to live. What would you do when you got tired of doing nothing?

Why not make your dreams come true? Live the life you always wanted… whether that’s helping kids learn baseball or making stained-glass windows or discussing holy books with learned men. A life that you want. A life that means something to you. Instead of quiet desperation.

What WOULD you do if you didn’t have to go to work?

You Could Make A Difference

Odds are good, actually, that you have a secret dream, so deep down that you may never have admitted it to yourself, where you make a difference in this world. The particulars will vary from me to you to Bob Gomez over there, but you dream of doing something that matters… maybe writing a history or philosophy book that clarifies everything, or working for your church, or volunteering at the soup kitchen 5 days a week, or traveling to poor countries and helping people get by, or making a difference in government, or….

If you didn’t have go to work every day in order to get money, you could do that.

What could you do to make a difference in this world if your job didn’t get in the way?

You Don’t Have To Keep It

If worst comes to worst, and you just cannot bear the thought of making that much money, but the idea of building a business still appeals to you….

give it away. There are plenty of people who will take it; you can give it to bums on the street, or worthy charities, or to me, if you’d like. (I’ll use it to build my business so that I’ll have time to help save the ethnosphere.) If it turns out that you’re not trustworthy with that kind of power, get a financial manager who will give most of your money to designated charities and dole out a small amount to you each month (it’s worked for British aristocrats for years).

So, is it evil or not?

I can’t answer that question for you.

I don’t think it is. I think that accepting a job that is less than I can do, to create less benefit than I am capable of creating, and in turn preventing both my selfish dreams and my dreams of helping others… I believe that’s evil. And the opposite of that: following my dreams, educating myself to do the best job I can, to build a business that will help others — in turn — follow their dreams… I believe that’s good. But you have to answer for yourself.