Sunday, October 23, 2011

Embarrassing E-mails

A firm moved an architect off a project because of tensions he had created with other members of the team. A colleague in the office then sent e-mails to others in the office protesting his move and urging others to do the same. Her e-mails not only got back to the partners in the firm, but to clients and consultants, embarrassing all involved.

Electronic mail and social media of various sorts have obviously made communications among people not located in the same place much faster and easier. This has enhanced the productivity of workers and the speed with which work gets done, but it also presents risks not often encountered with face-to-face or even written communications that had to be typed and mailed. Electronic communications now makes it too easy for someone to send an intemperate message to a large number of people, any of whom can forward it on to others not meant to see it.

Temperance remains one of the central tenets of virtue ethics. While that word has acquired others connotations, such as abstinence from alcohol, the term originally meant restraint, control, and most importantly, self-control. The temperate person knows when to speak and when to keep quiet, when to act and when not to. And temperance works both ways, not only for the person initiating an action, but also for those who must decide how to respond to it.

Electronic communications requires that we pay attention to temperance as never before. The rising incidence of teenagers bullying each other on social media shows how much we need to teach the value of temperance and to give children the tools to know how to deal with the intemperance of others. The same goes for the workplace. Colleagues and co-workers need to temper the urge to act intemperately and to temper their responses to others who don’t.

As this case suggests, we don’t always know where intemperate behavior begins. Did the person creating tension on the project team act intemperately and so deserve to be reassigned or did the partner in charge of the project act too rashly in making that reassignment? Whatever the specifics of that situation, however, it seems clear that the person who sought to provoke a protest in the office via e-mail did not think through the consequences of her decision before she acted. Would she have sent those messages if she knew that her call for insurrection would get read by the leadership of the firm as well as the client and consultants? Probably not, unless she didn’t care whether or not she kept her job.

That raises the question of what the leadership in the firm should do, given what happened. Should they fire her for insubordination, or would that simply add another intemperate act on top of hers? Temperance becomes more difficult the more intemperate others have been, which makes it all the more important to model self-control in situations like this. The power and persuasiveness of leaders lie in their ability, as Rudyard Kipling put it, to keep their heads when others are losing theirs, and so not reacting rashly becomes a way of demonstrating leadership and showing others where it lies.

Rather than fire the messenger, the head of the firm asked her to apologize to all who had received her e-mail and told her that she must never do such a thing again, to which she agreed. But as so often happens to the intemperate, her colleagues shunned her after that incident; she soon left the firm and is now living in a more temperate clime.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Gift Horses

A colleague, Michael Crosbie, wrote an editorial in the fall 2011 issue of the magazine he edits, Faith & Form ( about a parishioner who wanted to donate a water-intensive irrigation system to his church. While the church wanted to accept the gift, Michael, who is an architect, raised questions about the wisdom of accepting such a gift when better and more efficient alternatives existed. The church had to decide what to do with a gift that it could use, but that may not be in its best interest to accept.

The phrase “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” generally applies to the presents we sometimes receive as individuals that we may not want or like, but that we accept with gratitude because of the giver’s good intentions. Such gifts often get stored or given away, with no harm done to the feelings of those who gave them. It is another matter, though, when we must use and, as in the case here, depend upon the gift in our daily lives, without the ability to pass it on or put it away. This raises the ethical question of what matters more: social harmony or personal integrity? Do we do what we think is right in such a situation, regardless of the possible negative consequences to our relationship with others, or do we do what those relationships demand and not look the gift horse in the mouth?

This becomes particularly problematic in a professional relationship. People commission a professional like an architect in order to have their needs met in the best way possible and have their best interests attended to even if that means facing some disappointment when told that they cannot have all that they had wanted or do all that that they had hoped. Professionals differ from ordinary businesses in this way. The latter often try to please their customers as much as possible within what the law allows in terms of health, safety, and welfare. Profits flow to businesses by giving people what they want, even when that runs against the best interests of the purchasers, as we have seen with producers of tobacco products or the purveyors of high-calorie food.

Professionals have a higher bar to meet. Society expects professionals to do what is in the best interests not only of the individuals seeking professional advice, but also of the larger communities affected by it. That may mean, in situations like this, that professionals have to say or do things that others may not want or like, if that is in the best interest of all those involved. Here, the architect has an obligation to speak the truth to the church about the downsides of accepting and installing the system offered by the donor. The church, of course, can ignore Michael and insist that the system get used, keeping the donor happy but possibly alienating a knowledgeable member of the congregation. Or the church can take Michael’s professional advice to heart and thank the donor offering the gift, but decline to accept it because it does not meet their needs or goals.  

A third way almost always exists for such dilemmas, however, through the use of design. Unlike other professions with a “win-lose” view of conflict, designers seek “win-win” solutions. In this case, there remains the possibility of accepting the gift and installing the system as the donor wishes, while also providing a less costly and more sustainable alternative if it proves too expensive or wasteful to operate in the future. The resiliency that multiple, redundant systems provides can also help keep the peace.