In two earlier posts (HERE and HERE) I have attempted to plant the idea (or ‘raise the consciousness’ – as Richard Dawkins might say) that:

  1. The increase in the number of certified project managers does not positively reflect on the ratio of successful projects, and
  2. There must be a deeper reason for the prevailing trend of failed projects, and a strong candidate for explaining the above discrepancy could be looked at in the context of ethical and moral failures.

WARNING: This is by far my longest post ever – with an average reading speed of 200/wpm it will take you a whole 8 minutes to completely read this article.

In today’s post I aim to conclude my ‘ethical and moral’ journey by critically analyzing the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. The question I would attempt to answer would NOT be whether the above mentioned Code is in itself ethical – as I believe, without the need to further elaborate the point, that the Code in itself is necessary and logically valid – but rather concentrate on its content and verify whether we can practically expect project managers to meet its expectation?

So, the question I would contend to look at is “is it rational to expect project managers to abide by the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct”. Note that the question is not whether abiding by the guide is morally and ethically correct – as the answer to this is obvious. The question is around the rationality behind the expectation that people will do the right thing, regardless of the circumstances and furthermore, what is ‘the right thing’ anyway?

Morals vs Ethics

To begin the discussion we need to have some definitions in place: provides the following definitions:

  • Morals – principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct.
  • Ethics – the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.

The obvious distinction between Morals and Ethics is that morality deals with rights and wrongs while ethics deal with adherence to rules. Put slightly differently, morals represent personal values while ethics provide a group context within which these morals are applied.

A quick and simple example can illustrate the difference between the two:

Most people will agree that “thou shall not lie” is a valid moral rule. Implementing this rule in reality requires the execution of constant ‘cost-benefit analysis’ to ensure that the benefit of telling the truth does not result in a bigger negative offset resulting in a substantial damage to the group. Simple case: You are the PM and you are having a discussion with Stakeholder I. Stakeholder I is supportive of your proposal but is highly critical of Stakeholder II. You have a follow up with Stakeholder II, who is also supportive of your proposal but who also inquires about the views raised by Stakeholder I. Should you follow your your moral guide you will be contributing to a personal grief between two of your stakeholders. Should you lie and divulge nothing, you will be breaking your personal moral commitment.

The point to take from the discussion so far is that an ethical code is noting but a guideline outlining the expected values that the individuals within the group are expected to hold and exhibit. This, however, raises a number of issues:

  1. There is a hidden assumption that the individuals within the group all share the same (or similar) set of values;
  2. There is lack of detail regarding the circumstances in which deviating from the rule will be justified; and
  3. There is insufficient attention to the need to manage conflicting interests between the interests of the groups vs the interests of its individual members.

Applied Ethics vs Normative Ethics

At this point I need to introduce two additional terms: Applied Ethics and Normative Ethics:

  1. Applied Ethics is concerned with analyzing specific and controversial scenarios and ethical resolutions to these issues. For an issue to be considered an “applied ethical issue” it needs to satisfy two conditions:
    1. there need to be significant groups of people both for and against the issue at hand, and
    2. it must be a distinctly moral issue
  2. Normative Ethics is concerned with moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. “The key assumption in normative ethics is that there is only one ultimate criterion of moral conduct, whether it is a single rule or a set of principles“.

In the simple example I brought earlier, analyzing the situation outlined in the example is within the realm of applied ethics because it is likely that opinions  will vary regarding whether it was correct to not tell the truth and the issue of telling the truth is distinctly a moral issue. Furthermore, the need to keep to the truth is within the confines of normative ethics as most professional codes  of conduct will list the need to keep the truth as a key ethical value.

The PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct

We now have the tools to examine the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. The Code identifies four foundational values: Responsibility, Respect, Fairness, and Honesty. For those not familiar with the Code, it contains Aspirational and Mandatory standards. Aspirational standards “describe the conduct that we strive to uphold as practitioners” while Mandatory standards “establish firm requirements, and in some cases, limit or prohibit practitioner behavior“.

The section on Responsibility includes the following aspirational standard:

We make decisions and take actions based on the best interests of society, public safety, and the

This  requirement suffers from an  obvious deficiency:

The determination of what does or does not reflect “the best interests of society” is problematic and virtually impossible to attain. Some years ago I rejected a job opportunity at a global cigarettes manufacturer as it did not match my personal value system. Had I taken on the job and had to “make decisions based on the best interests of society, public safety, and the environment“, I would have had to deliberately jeopardize the project’s success.

The section on Respect includes the following aspirational standard:

“We inform ourselves about the norms and customs of others and avoid engaging in behaviors they
might consider disrespectful.”

This requirement implies that morality is NOT universal and it is morally acceptable to request that a project manager forgo his or her own values and ignore immoral behaviors exhibited by others. One does not need to read Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” to intuitively realize this this requirement is problematic.

The section on Fairness states that it is a Project Manager’s

duty to make decisions and act impartially and objectively. Our conduct must be free from competing self interest, prejudice, and favoritism“.

This expectation does not take into account the vast body of knowledge (collated and summarized in Daniel Kahneman’s recent book “Thinking, Fast and Slow) demonstrating our innate susceptibility to behavioral and judgmental biases, affecting our decision making faculties.

The section on Honesty states that it is the project manager’s “duty to make decisions and act impartially and objectively. Our conduct must be free from competing self interest, prejudice, and favoritism.” This requirement has a similar deficiency to that shown for Fairness as it ignores known biases affecting our decision making.

Time to wrap up

If you stayed with me to this point you deserve to get a summary, or better off, a conclusion.

The take from the above should be as follows:

  1. A code of conduct, in itself is far from being a promoter, driver or enable of a suitable follow-up.  A Code is a useful tool in covering the normative aspects of the issue concerned (in our case – ethical issues). If does not, however, deal with the applied side, and as such it fails in providing specific and realistic guidelines that can be applied in real life situations.
  2. A Code can require universal adherence only if its application (i.e. execution) is universally accepted. Should issues of culture, gender, race or religion stand in the way of its universality, those conflicting sections in the Code need to be removed as they are practically useless.
  3. A Code needs to reflect the nature of the society in which it is published. Should the prevailing values within that society contradict (or negate) the spirit of the Code it is unlikely (as we see in reality) that the Code will have any real impact.

Your comments and thoughts will be appreciated.

Think about it!

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  11. Shim
    I fully agree with your reservations about a code of conduct. However, I do think that if PM is to be regarded highly as a profession, we need to conduct ourselves professionally and that must mean some behavioural standards. I was very taken ( with the Harvard Business School MBA oath. We could do a lot worse than this, in two ways:
    – it is a well-worded oath, that avoids some of the pitfalls you identify
    – the process of taking an oath is, I think, a good one. It harnesses our enhanced need to comply when we have made a commitment publicly
    I would be up for joining with you and maybe one or two other interested people in trying to find a form of oath that could work for the PM profession.


    • Hi Mike, thanks for your comment.

      I have read your original post from Oct 2009 after reading Craig’s follow-up post from Nov 2009. The comment I made there, that is also relevant here, is that “at the end of the day it is not the oath that makes the person but the person makes the oath. Meaning that if you haven’t got the personality to support it no oath in the world is going to hold you back”. I also agree with Craig’s comment in his blog where he says that “I’m pretty comfortable with my values and so I think I’ll stand by my actions rather than sign on to a list”.

      Getting back to my article, it wasn’t really about bashing the code as much as highlighting the fact that in its current format it does not work. I therefore made some specific recommendations on how this should be addressed. Having gone back to Craig’s article I also note his recommendation to put greater weight on this aspect of project management within the PMP certification process and other project management certification programs.

      Cheers, Shim.


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