Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 19;   May 9, 2018: Unethical Coordination

Unethical Coordination

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When an internal department or an external vendor is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What's the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur?
Jump ball in a game of basketball

Jump ball in a game of basketball. The official supposedly has no stake in the game. His role is to ensure a fair outcome by enforcing the rules of the game.

Coordinators in the project context have analogous responsibility. They're responsible for producing a good outcome by ensuring that all team members have what they need to carry out their roles.

In the project context, to coordinate is to organize events or activities across a group of people to help them work together effectively. The coordinator role often serves as a clearing agent for information, gathering data and distributing it across the project team. And sometimes, coordinators negotiate with team members to help them find ways around obstacles, conflicts in schedules, and conflicting agendas. Ethical coordinators are reliable sources for information about what some call the project's ground truth — its reality, its true status.

Unethical coordinators are up to something else. Their motives vary, but generally they have two sets of goals that can sometimes conflict. One goal, clearly, is the project's success. Another goal is more personal — the success of the organization or team they represent, or perhaps the success of their immediate supervisors. Coordinators who are in these conflict-of-interest situations are at risk of a breach of ethics when they place the personal goal above the project's success.

For example, consider an enterprise — call it OMC (Over Matched Corporation) — that's undertaking a large and complex project — call it Marigold — that requires sophisticated capabilities unavailable in-house. OMC has enlisted external assistance — call it LPC (Large Project Coordinators) — to coordinate Marigold. While it's true that LPC personnel want Marigold to succeed, they also want LPC to be seen as contributing to Marigold's success. And that situation can create a conflict of interest for LPC personnel. They must exercise their responsibilities with special care to avoid ethical breaches. Most do. Some don't.

To gain insight Project coordinators are at risk
of a breach of ethics when
they place personal goals
above the project's success
into the ethical difficulties relating to coordinating large projects, let's consider the relatively narrow topic of how LPC personnel might make decisions about Marigold project information. For convenience I'll use the name Larch to refer to LPC's coordinator on Marigold.

Withholding information — or not
When Larch takes minutes at meetings for distribution afterwards, he gathers status information about action items. When action item Daffodil is overdue, he can choose how he presents the reasons for it being late. Assume for the moment that the reasons for Daffodil being late do shelter Daffodil's owner from any repercussions. Larch might be more inclined to include those reasons in his meeting minutes if Daffodil had been assigned to LPC personnel, than he would be if it had been assigned to OMC personnel. He might also be more inclined to include that exculpatory information if Daffodil's owner is someone from OMC whom LPC favors. If his choice is influenced by whether or not LPC favors Daffodil's owner, he might have crossed the ethical line.
Manufacturing information
"Manufacturing" information includes creating it from whole cloth, but it also includes unusually energetic research to develop information that meets specific needs. For example, Larch might want to provide cover for an LPC mistake or lapse; or he might want to raise questions about the performance of an OMC employee or someone affiliated with a contractor other than LPC. Any such activity at odds with the truth, or undertaken for reasons other than Marigold's success, might constitute an ethical breach.
Managing information flow
Larch can also control the timing and targeting of information distributions. He can provide information earlier to some people than to others, which provides advantages to those who receive it early. For example, if he uncovers bad news about LPC performance, he can provide it to LPC personnel, who then have extra time to prepare responses or to fix whatever is amiss. He can do this for seemingly appropriate reasons: "I asked Nan to review the report for accuracy," or "I asked Ed for background on the Severn delays."

Detecting these kinds of ethical breaches is difficult for OMC personnel if LPC has tight control over Marigold information. The situation can easily develop into one in which the tail (LPC) wags the dog (OMC). Recognizing these tactics is a valuable first step. Prevention and possible correction of unethical coordinator behavior are topics for another time. Go to top Top  Next issue: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VIII  Next Issue

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