23. Do the Right Thing. Mostly.

What do you owe others—if anything—in regard to honesty, fairness, and how you use power?

That’s a core question every time you negotiate. And it’s just as important when you’re leading a group, large or small. Often, though, the hardest choices aren’t between drawing the line between right and wrong. Rather, they’re about reconciling competing obligations. Choosing between right and right, if you will.

Say, for instance, your organization is on the edge of a cliff financially. Does that give you license to use deception to strike a better deal with a customer or a supplier? Your first impulse might be to say “no.” If so, good for you. On the other hand, you are protecting your conscience at no cost to you personally. It’s your employer who will be worse off.

In this episode we get guidance on such questions from our friend and HBS colleague Max Bazerman. Over the years Max has written extensively about the psychology of decision-making, the irrational biases that can warp our thinking. Now Max has a new book: Better, Not Perfect: A Realist’s Guide to Maximum Sustainable Goodness.

Max counsels us to be wary of aspiring to be perfect saints. Having high ideals is admirable, but very hard to do, especially in these challenging days. But that doesn’t justify ignoring practical standards of moral responsibility. We should always take into account the broader social consequences of what we do and say. The good should outweigh the bad.

Here’s a tip from Max: to make better moral decisions don’t do it on the fly. Beforehand, as you’re preparing for a negotiation or a key meeting, anticipate the tough moral questions that might arise. What are your values and how will you balance them in this case?