Five Ways To Avoid An Ethical Mistake—And Preserve Your Career

We’ve all faced moments of temptation, but not all of us act on those impulses. When leaders throw caution to the wind and engage in risky behavior, they can end up sabotaging their career, bringing down their organization, ruining their reputation, threatening their future, and dragging friends and family down with them.

Why do leaders do this? People in power often develop an oversized self-image that makes them think that widely accepted rules of conduct simply don’t apply to them. And then a biological process kicks in. Psychologist Daniel Goleman calls it “amygdala hijack”–the moment when we’re lured by the “high” of risk taking. That’s when the amygdala, the primitive part of our brain that rules the fight, flight, or freeze responses of the parasympathetic nervous system, takes over the decision-making function that’s usually performed by the rational part of the brain in our neocortex.

Leaders can avoid making bad decisions that could potentially destroy their career by practicing these five strategies instead.

Look Hard At Your Past.

Dig in to your past history to find what may be driving your behavior. We all have old emotional wounds that trigger anger, sadness, and fear responses. If those wounds are ignored, they can lead to poor decisions and risky behaviors–such as taking revenge, indulging in addictions, having an affair, or stealing. First be compassionate with yourself, and then get help from a trained psychotherapist if you’re unable to confront and heal these wounds on your own.

Pursue Healthy Habits.

Hunger, fatigue, nutritional deficits, lack of exercise, and overwork make our brain less sharp and more vulnerable to processes that interfere with impulse control and rational thought. Keep your brain at its best by eating a healthy diet, arranging your life so you get 7-8 hours of sleep per night, exercising every day if you can, being outdoors on a regular basis, and finding ways to manage stress, whether it’s by walking your dog, praying, or taking a yoga class.

Change Your Mood.

Negative emotions lead to risky or unethical decisions. There are lots of self-help books and articles that show how to change a negative state to a positive one. Find some ways that work for you. You might try putting on music or taking a walk. You can write down your feelings or take some deep breaths. Drink water or practice mindfulness–the state of being fully aware in the present moment. Whatever tools and techniques help, use them whenever you’re feeling out of sorts. 

Get Back On Track.

If you did something you regret, don’t let it happen again. Period. You need to put a hard stop on the behavior so it doesn’t become a repetitive, negative behavior pattern that will bring down your personal or company life. Be your own stern master, and say to yourself, “Once is enough!” Psychologists who study the “domino effect” say that one occurrence of impulsive or destructive behavior makes it more likely that another and another will occur. That’s why you need to stop it now.

Project Your “Headline.”

Here’s a strategy lots of fallen leaders could have used and avoided public humiliation and shame. Think of what your headline might say: “Local Leader and Father of Two Committed Serial Adultery; Wife Flees.” Think of the people you love and what your repeated, risky behaviors would do to them if you were found out. Imagine your family reading that headline and learning about your unethical behavior. If your action isn’t something you’d be proud to have splashed across the evening news, then don’t do it.

Learn more strategies for being an ethical leader here.

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