Continuing our series on sales ethics, we now pose the question: when dealing with sales ethics—or ethics in any field, for that matter—should we operate on values or principles?
Often, principles and values are confused. Values are not the same as principles, for values are contextualized.
For example, there is an old account from a Christian missionary ministering to a tribe in the South American jungle. Because the ground was so soft, this particular tribe made its home up in the trees. This posed a particular challenge to the missionary when attempting to translate Jesus’ teaching that those who trust in his word have “built their houses on solid ground.” These indigenous people had not built their houses on the ground at all, so this particular value had been contextualized.
A principle, on the other hand, is universal. An example is gravity—it’s a principle that when disobeyed can cause serious injury or death.
Because principles are universal, a business should be operating on principles. Companies operate worldwide, and principles apply everywhere.
A business, however, will often evolve codes of ethics. Most often, they are not principles but values, and as such will often be violated—not because people deliberately want to break them, but because they don’t make sense in some contexts. These codes haven’t been thought through enough and are not mature.
A principle, on the other hand, becomes a guiding light. People realize that it helps them. It is supportive.
When business ethics codes are evolved out of principles, it makes sense to follow them. An example of such a code would be to refrain from making illicit political expenditures. An example of a violation of this principle is when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in the last election, spent $419 million U.S. dollars for targeted takeovers of specific nonprofit organizations, resulting in a higher turnout of democrat voters. In my opinion, this was a violation of principles. He provided a bad example. And while he was not the first individual on either side of the political spectrum to quietly channel money to a particular cause, he is the first to do it at scale. Ultimately if we accept such activities as the prerogative of the select few, then we are faced with a political landscape that becomes a battle of billionaires across the political divide. Exercising their outsized influence, whether overtly or covertly, erodes the influence of the ordinary citizen which is the antithesis of democracy.
Such violation of principles, unfortunately, occurs regularly in Congress, on both sides of the political divide. An example there is trading stocks on insider information.
Influence on Behavior
As we can see from the above flagrant examples, business ethics are eroding and no longer have a positive effect. Ultimately, we need a positive impact on behavior from business principles. When they don’t create that kind of effect, they are not principles; they are contextualized (as values) and are not sound.
When I say “sound,” I mean that they affect people’s preferences. We must think through business ethics as they’re being created so that preferences are clearly addressed.
Preferences can influence time. One kind of preference, such as constructing a building or putting together a business, can extend over years. Sales, in my opinion, deals in much shorter periods. A sale will rarely take years.
The ancient Greeks provided two terms for time. One is Chronos, which is the term for chronological time. The other term, Kairos, refers to specific and significant moments—for example, the ideal moment when something should be accomplished. In sales, this would translate to the ideal time that a deal should be closed.
Business ethics created for Chronos influence a long period, whereas those for Kairos influence particular moments. When evolving business ethics, a company should consider what makes sense and has meaning to people. If that isn’t considered, people won’t follow business ethics.
Without meaning, ethics never fall over into behavior. One follows ethics when there is meaning. Meaning taps into a person’s goals and what they want to attain. When it does so, they will be more likely to follow ethics.
As an example, most Olympic athletes, when in competition, will follow the rules, as they want to win their medals honestly. Sure, some cheat, but overall, rules are adhered to.
Rules for Olympic competition have changed over time. Currently, a number of professional basketball players have pledged to play for the U.S. Olympic team in Paris next year. They can do this because the rules have been modified, and professionals who are paid for their sport can compete. This wasn’t always true—in 1972, Austrian downhill skier Karl Schranz was disqualified from Olympic competition because he was not a pure amateur. Today, this is no longer a problem.
The rule in the Olympic example above is no longer followed because it wasn’t logical. But some rules, based on principles, actually are reasonable. They don’t evolve out of idealism but out of common sense. Rules based on idealism sound good, but often nobody will follow them. A principle is universal—it applies the same in New Zealand as in Australia, Europe, or the U.S.
Why is ethical behavior today eroding so badly? Because people in power and the media, totally visible to all of us, blatantly ignore principles and don’t follow them. People look to those examples and wonder why they should have to follow principles. This is bad for society.
At Pipeliner, we have taken a positive approach, with principles that are universal and supportive. We know that not everyone follows them—we gave two examples in the last article. But that doesn’t mean we are giving up on these principles, because we believe they support us and our customers in the long run.
For us, it’s not an ethical dilemma—it’s the choice we make because we believe in it. We have the moral obligation to help build positive sales enterprises, because we know that when commerce is not causing goods and services to cross borders, soldiers will be crossing borders. Peace only comes from strength, and strength only comes about when people are honest. Dishonest sales upsets people, and upsets could lead to conflict, and conflict could lead to war.
There is a widespread perception that salespeople have low moral standards and will do anything to make a sale. Where does this perception come from? It comes from portrayals in fiction and film. In my opinion, the exact opposite is true—sales is a very moral field. Just look over the last thousands of years. If sales was utterly immoral, we would not have had the volume of trade we have seen over that time.
We follow the philosophy that, in sales, every salesperson is equal to every other salesperson. It is not an art, but a craft that anyone can learn. And we believe that most salespeople are following it honestly.
The Intelligent Path
In writing this series of articles, I’m not taking a moral stance of religion. Ethics in business, and in sales, is actually the intelligent path. Intelligence doesn’t mean “information,” it means knowledge. Knowledge actively executed brings about wisdom—and wisdom is always ethical.