In my twenties, I once asked an experienced CEO about going into a business partnership and how to set up it for success. He said, “Choose a partner with integrity. If you don’t, nothing else will matter.” At the time, admittedly, I was too young and inexperienced to know what he was talking about. If you have navigated a work relationship with a unethical or low-character individual, you will recognize the truth in his advice. I wish I had understood it then.

Be aware of who you are dealing with by asking, listening, and learning about where they are on their developmental journey so that you can adjust your boundaries with them accordingly. The challenge is to maintain your integrity in the face of self-interested behavior and learn how to protect what matters most. Don’t put your mission at risk because someone is unprincipled or unaware of the impact of their actions. It may not be in your power to avoid them, but you can limit their negative influence by first recognizing what is happening.

Here are some signs to look out for if you have questions about an individual’s character:

  1. They don’t respect the contributions of others on the team.
  2. They value “impression management”* over genuine quality and transparency.
  3. They have little or no commitment to growing the organization or themselves.
  4. They reject reasonable feedback from others trying to help them improve.
  5. They have trouble sustaining long-term alliances and collaborative relationships.
  6. They deny or avoid problems or issues.
  7. They frequently deliver work that is late, incomplete, or satisfies only the minimum quality standards.
  8. They don’t easily form trusting relationships.
  9. They throw others “under the bus” to advance their own agenda.
  10. They don’t invest in mentoring and developing others.
  11. They make questionable judgments repeatedly, even after coaching.
  12. They manipulate to get things that benefit them, but are not in the organization’s best interest.

Shady characters will exhibit many or all of these signs. They are oriented to their own self-interest above all. They will likely advocate and manipulate for one-sided solutions, and look for ways to take advantage of others. A valued performer, by definition, behaves with integrity and ethics, including respecting others, otherwise they are a threat to the organization.

* Impression management describes the process of creating a positive view of oneself by manipulating information and taking calculated actions to advance one’s own image, rather than actual transparency.

So be aware and selective about when and how to engage with those who drain resources away from your mission. As one of my mentors would say, “Don’t invite a cannibal to dinner, or you may be on the menu.” Unethical behavior is dangerous, personally and professionally.

Usually our people challenges are simply the result of misunderstandings, different perspectives, unclear expectations, immaturity, or faulty communication, but occasionally you encounter someone who generates negativity habitually, and actually is working to advance their own interests at your expense. High character leadership is not just a personal preference, but a real business issue. Data shows high quality, ethical leadership produces better long-term results for the organization in every measure of performance. When we believe in something bigger than our own comfort, we learn and grow, even when it’s difficult. This includes growing our own effectiveness at limiting the impact of unscrupulous actors.

The dangers are real, and these potential problems can also provide an opportunity to challenge ourselves to be undeterred by and learn to deal with the devious people we encounter on our quest towards a better future. Developing an upgraded defensive capability is a critical protection of your purpose. Standing tall as leaders of character, we build new opportunities from a solid foundation.

If you’re seeking advice on ways to become more aware and effective at work, check out The Conscious Professional website where you can download the first chapter for free.

Jessica Hartung

Jessica Hartung is a partner, coach, and guide for those leveling-up their personal professional leadership, their teams, and their communities to a better future.

Jessica has a passion for inspiring and preparing people to grow from their work to improve their lives. In 1998, she founded Integrated Work, a consulting firm that brings top-notch professional development to mission-driven leaders, while being a learning laboratory for innovative work practices.

Jessica provides self-directed professional development tools to leaders at all levels striving to create positive impact.

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