When was the last time you faced or wrestled with a morally challenging business decision? How did you handle it? Were you left with a paradoxical outcome? Or with a meaningful, integral and satisfying solution? Did you simply take the risk of the consequences and make the decision autocratically? Or did you center yourself and use more objective reasoning, resulting in a more sustainable fair exchange? Did your decision result in a zero-sum game or a non-zero-sum game?
In the early 1990s, I was contacted and requested to consult for the founder of a rapidly growing website developing company headquartered out of Florida. The company was quickly scaling up and expanding its operations to meet the urgent new demand for business websites in the US and other countries throughout the world. The founder was hiring hundreds of website developers, with their newly emerging technical and graphic skills, from various colleges. The founder presented me with what he termed his sleepless night-initiating, business challenging, moral conundrum.
His number one performer in website development package sales was a recently hired woman who was selling more website development contracts than five of the other existing sales specialists combined. Her recent coming on board seemed critically vital to the rapidly growing company. The founder was admiring her performance, was a bit now dependent on her, and felt she was definitely adding to the company’s stability, brand and image.
During this same time, his cofounding business partner of three years, who was initially very active in helping build phase one of the company, was now slacking off. He was uninspired, a bit debaucherous, and no longer considered by the founder to be very contributive and productive, yet he was still unfairly receiving 49 percent of the current business profits—at least according to the founder’s current subjective perceptions. The founder disclosed that he felt that their initial business partnership arrangement/agreement was no longer a fair arrangement for the efforts the cofounding partner was currently providing, in comparison to his own.
The founder either wanted to renegotiate the terms of the original agreement or buy his cofounding partner out, since his attempt to try to get his partner to be more focused, strategic and actively engaged was not being effective or fruitful, which was more than frustrating and enraging him. He also felt the cofounder’s lowered work ethic was also rippling down to some of the longer-term sales specialists and administrative staff and catalyzing similar less-productive entitlements in some individuals in a few of the departments.
The founder, though, had a bit of an additional challenge. The cofounding partner was “secretively” having a recently discovered, passionately intimate affair with the number one saleswoman. So the founder’s dependency on the saleswoman and his simultaneous desire for independence from the cofounder was leaving him with a challenging moral paradox. How does he approach this sensitive issue without disrupting the current growth of the company? Particularly, since the company’s current executive management policy was to disallow such romantic affairs between executives or between executives and non-executives.
If he challenged the cofounding partner on the relationship issue and his reduced productivity, and it was not done with finesse and sensitivity, it could jeopardize the dynamic he currently had with the recently hired, highly productive saleswoman, due to her potential paradox of priority and loyalty.
The founder was running various scenarios around in his mind about the fallout of confronting his cofounding partner, and about its impact on a potential decline in the percentage of the profits, and about its impact on her performance and commitment to the company—over her loyalty to the cofounder.
If he stuck his head in the sand and attempted to ignore the situation, he would further perpetuate in his mind the seemingly unfair exchange, the out-of-integrity scenario with his cofounding partner and the corporate policy infringement. This would lead to further degrees of confusion, resentment and an imbalance in workloads between the two, which would eventually resurface and again have to be faced and confronted.
The founder was certainly admiring the saleswoman’s productivity and was conscious of her upsides and unconscious of her downsides. He was simultaneously quite resentful of the cofounding partner and was, in contrast, conscious of his downsides and unconscious of his upsides. He was therefore caught in the subjectively-biased web of a harsh, emotionally-trying reality—a seeming moral paradox.
I had the founder make a thorough list of the downsides to the saleswoman that he was blind to and a list of the upsides to the cofounding partner, which he was also blind to—in order to balance out his perception. This would level the playing field and center himself back into his more objective executive function in his forebrain since he was enraged and functioning from his amygdala and emotionally overreacting. This calmed down his emotional subjective blindness and helped him perceive more fairly and objectively these two individuals. Once he perceived the balance to both individuals, he was able to come to a more reasonable solution and not impulsively and instinctually react.
He then had a meeting with the leading saleswoman and explained how important it was for her to share her highly polished selling skills with the remaining sales teams. This would help sales be a bit more evenly distributed, so as to not discourage the remaining sales specialists and not have the company too dependent upon her. When he was admiring her and blind to her downsides, he feared her loss. Once he leveled the perceptions, his anxiety calmed, and he was able to help her be more accountable to the company in a newly broadened way.
He also met with his cofounding partner, and instead of lashing out with his previous emotionally pent-up rage, he more calmly revealed to his partner the stats concerning his performance. He asked his partner what he was experiencing or going through since his productivity had so declined that it was not like his previous performing self. He also asked if he was unfulfilled in the role that gradually emerged from the growth that they now had. Was he contemplating alternative directions? Was he aware of the impact his distraction was having on the performance of the teams he oversaw? Was he feeling that he was contributing all that he could to the company? Was he contemplating other company positions? Was he wanting to retire early? Was he aware of the impact his relationship with the new saleswoman was having on the teams below him and on corporate policy infringement? In other words, he had a discussion that brought the integrity back between them and cleared the repressed emotions and uncertainties.
The cofounding partner openly admitted he was currently disengaged, was wanting to pursue a new direction for the company and was feeling that the founding partner had different intentions long-term than him. So they hashed the differences out and came to a conclusion that they were going to add another new department to the company, which allowed the cofounder to become reengaged and add new services that contributed to the overall long-term profits and growth.
The cofounder realized that his affair was leaving the company vulnerable and was not setting or exemplifying the standards originally intended and he was misleading himself and the saleswoman on his true long-term intentions. So he then humbly communicated his concerns and feelings to the saleswoman and requested that they reestablish a more professional relationship since he intuitively knew it was probably not going to be a long-term relationship, though he sincerely appreciated the time they had together. He shared with her that her talents and position in the business were far too important to take the risk of potentially jeopardizing them by being a bit irresponsible, though he was sincere with his passionate short-term feelings.
These two discussions cleared the air and energies up between all three individuals and helped reignite the cofounder’s focus on the business mission. One of the lessons learned was that: Earning money without engagement, meaning and fulfillment can lead to amygdala-based debauchery. But earning money with meaning, and fulfilling careers with engagement, can lead to integrity, sustainability and philanthropy.
Once the cofounder was re-engaged in his business, his behaviors become more governed and focused, his productivity returned, and he and the founder’s original partnership arrangement was back on track. The saleswoman was also partly relieved since she knew she was walking a bit on fire and could have jeopardized her position and career path and credibility.
The new department allowed the cofounder to be reinspired by the business mission. It also enabled him to be more of a spokesperson for the emerging specialty field in universities and in public media and therefore allowed him to participate in a greater leadership position in the website development market. The founder was sleeping again and was refocused and inspired.
Returning to integrity and sustainable fair exchange in business relationship transactions when confronted by such morally challenging business decisions pays off, physically, emotionally, mentally, vocationally, socially and financially.