Values And That Red Light Syndrome
No one suddenly decides to rob a million bucks. It usually starts small. It seems harmless. And then slowly balloons into a catastrophe that destroys reputations, careers, lives even
What do you do when you see a red light at the traffic signal? That’s a question I often ask young corporate leaders and B-school students. And their answer is consistently the same. They all say, “we stop”. I am guessing that was your response too. When we see a red light, we stop. That’s it. Seems pretty straightforward. Everyone knows that’s the right thing to do.
But it doesn’t end there. As we linger a bit longer on the question, other responses begin to pop up. Of situations when we don’t necessarily stop on seeing a red light. Like, if it’s late in the night. Or if there’s no cop. Or in a medical emergency. Or we jump the red light because we see everyone else is doing it too. Sounds familiar, no?
Quickly, very quickly, the initial response — we stop when we see a red light — seems to give way to a set of responses that suggest there are many, many situations when we don’t stop at the red light. We all know that the right thing to do is to stop when you see a red light. And yet, we find ourselves not necessarily doing the right thing.
And that brings me to the next question. If you found you could steal a million dollars — or two — from the company where you are working, would you do it? Would you?
The answer from everyone is unanimous. A vehement “no”. No way. Wouldn’t do that. Never. And I am guessing that was your response too. You would never do that, would you?
But think again about the red light. What if it was the middle of the night and you were all alone? Would you do it? What if there was a medical emergency, and you needed the money? What if the CFO — or the cop — wasn’t there? What if everyone else was putting their hand in the till? Would you do it?
No we all say. No, no, never.
Makes me think. We’ve all heard of good, intelligent people who got into trouble for doing silly things at work. Like fudging expense statements. Or embezzling funds. Or insider trading. Why did they do it? Why did that fantastic guy we all admired — the IIT-D and Harvard Business School grad who headed one of the largest consulting businesses — why did he end up spending time in prison?
Truth is, none of us went to college or B-school to go to jail. Our friends and and the family are all very proud of who we are, and what we do. They’d hate to see us in trouble. Sacked, disgraced. And perhaps, in jail. Why do some of us succumb to temptation then?
The problem might actually lie at the traffic light. Maybe we should just learn to stop. We all know what the right thing to do is, but then we make exceptions to the rule, and rationalise that it’s all right. Saying its okay to jump the red light at 2 AM soon means that we jump the red light at 1 AM too.
After all, not much difference. And then what’s good for 1 AM becomes good for midnight. And then 11 PM. And 9 PM in winter begins to feel like 11 PM — and we soon find ourselves jumping the red light with impunity at all hours.
No one suddenly decides to rob a million bucks. It usually starts small. It seems harmless. And then slowly balloons into a catastrophe that destroys reputations, careers, lives even. Don’t let it happen to you. The secret is simple. Next time you see a red light, just stop. It doesn’t matter what time it is. It doesn’t matter whether anyone is looking. And it doesn’t matter who else is doing it. Just stop.
Clayton Christensen, the venerable professor at HBS says it right. “It’s easier to hold your principles 100 per cent of the time than it is to hold them 98 per cent of the time.” Sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Because 98 per cent soon becomes 95 per cent, then 90, and 80, then 70 per cent. And before you know it, you have quickly slid down a slippery slope.
Holding on to your values is quite simple really. Next time you see a red light, just stop.
You will, won’t you?