A friend who consults in the health benefits world recently shared the story of a vendor who approached him seeking to buy his influence with a particular client. The vendor had a complete plan for how to accomplish this without anyone, including the client, finding out. My friend, relatively new to this side of the health benefits world, was taken aback and expressed his shock. Chillingly, the vendor answered that it was standard practice and “not a big deal.”
From that vendor’s point of view, the incentive was simply a “commission” or recognition of the consultant’s help in generating new revenue. Of course, the fact that efforts would be expended to hide the transaction are the first clue that something is amiss. The reality is that the consultant was helping make the decision by advising the client – a relationship that the client expected to be in his/her best interest and without external financial influences that create a conflict of interest.
The story above is a brazen example of something that we’ve become far too comfortable with in our success-driven, win-at-any-cost culture: buying influence. It is done on so many levels and in so many ways that we hardly notice it. We wrap it in words like “commission,” “rebate,” and “lobbying.” Laws that regulate such activities generally use words like “kickback” or “bribe” to categorize hidden payments.
My example above should not be confused with performance incentives to employees or contractors who are paid to produce results through sales efforts. Efforts to influence a buying decision from the outside are necessary for driving business and growing revenue. However, when such efforts spill over into the dirty world of “insider trading” and “influence peddling,” we’ve stepped into a dark place.
We all know where the lines exist, yet many still continue to push them, bend them, and cross them. They generally start with small compromises and the rationalizations build from there. Sadly, we seem wired for compromise and our desire to win, or to have more, cloud our good judgment; particularly if we think the compromise is safe from detection. The white lies are simply the gateway to larger sins of deception.
At the core of such failings is a lack of integrity. Honor seems in short supply and we often set a low price for its betrayal. Small things accumulate. Another recent story I was told revolved around an employee a who left a firm to join a competitor. Alas, in the month prior leaving, it was discovered that the employee downloaded a large number of proprietary files. Curiously, my first question was “Was there an employment agreement/non-compete in place?” – a question that speaks to the insidious rationalization of the behavior; as-if a contract or lack thereof justifies the behavior in any way.
Stealing proprietary information from your employer to use to your own benefit and to their detriment is wrong regardless of whether or not you had an employment agreement specifying such wrongness.
in conversation after conversation with prospective customers or business partners, I find that we spend a lot of time dancing around the integrity issue. Rarely is it a direct conversation, however, if you step back and consider the conversations and their questions, much of it revolves around the issue of trust. Can I trust you? Are you a person of honor? Will you screw me when I let my guard down?
In one such recent discussion, I was asked repeatedly about some unusual contract structures only to eventually discover that the goal from across the table was not complexity or even to better understand our model, but was a quest for a basis of trust. in such a compromised world, we search for signs of faith and integrity. We are hungry for the honorable and desperately want to work with people we can trust.
There are many who want to address humanity’s moral shortfalls with more laws. The problem is that we can’t regulate every possible interaction and we wouldn’t want it if we could. James Madison once said “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Fair enough. We need to have protections and structure.
However, for those of us in business, there is a better alternative to creating more and more regulation. We need to remember that playing with honor and integrity is just good business. Winning at any costs is a fallacy and we will be far more successful if we persistently do the right thing.
I’m not talking about some gray zone continuum of Machiavellian rationalization. No, we’ve gotten way too effective at rationalizing our aims and justifying our actions.
The answer is that we need a fundamental return to integrity. Here is a starter list for those wanting to march to a different drum beat:
- Start by being honest and forthright in how you communicate. As Jordan Peterson says, “always tell the truth, or, at least don’t lie.” You may have differing aims than the other person, that is ok, own it.
- Will the good of the other. Begin every dialogue and relationship with the intention of helping the other person be successful. If your aims are mutually exclusive, then agree to disagree and part ways honorably.
- Admit that you intend to make money and be transparent with your economic model. Fees and commissions are ok when everyone agrees to them. Most of us are willing to pay for value.
- Start every conversation with good intent. Sincerely good intent is a strong basis for a relationship. Bring good intent and assume good intent. Protect yourself but try to avoid self-protection paranoia. Every relationship has risk points. If there aren’t any, it’s not really much of a relationship.
- Do what you say you’re going to do. If something changes, be clear in communicating it. if you make a mistake, own it and work to make it right.
- Avoid the small compromises, they always lead to bigger ones. If I can’t trust you to be faithful in the small things, how can I trust you with bigger ones?
- Know that you are not perfect and neither is the other person. Forgive, move on, and work like crazy to not make the same mistake again.
If you want to begin a conversation with yourself about your own integrity, start by asking “what’s my price?” In the day-to-day situations you face, opportunities for small and big compromises will appear. Sadly, we often discover that our price for compromise was not very high. Trust me when I say that your honor is priceless. Your integrity should never be compromised.
Want to truly differentiate yourself in the market? Be a person of honor. Be good. Don’t compromise your integrity for any price. Do the right thing every time. Stand apart by standing for something more. There will always be plenty of others who will lay down for far less.