Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Values and interests in decision-making

Samantha Power is an academic and author who was the United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017.

Power’s diplomacy is founded in her career origins as a journalist covering the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s as a war correspondent for various publications.  Later, Power became a professor and then a foreign policy fellow and advisor working for Barack Obama, and was then appointed to the National Security Council before her nomination as the ambassador to the UN.

Like US Senator Kamala Harris, Power also makes references to seeing past false choices in making ethical approaches to difficult decisions (check out this post for more on Harris and false choices, and this post for fundamental principles of making hard decisions that are also ethical ones).  In this 2016 speech by Power at the U.S. Naval Academy, for example, Power suggests that rejecting narrow framing, and taking a deeper dive into complex issues no matter how confusing or challenging this may be, can help choosers to make more informed and ethical decisions:  Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power on “Rejecting False Choices: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East” at the U.S. Naval Academy’s Forrestal Lecture on Foreign Policy 

The Netflix documentary The Final Year chronicles Barack Obama’s last months in office as U.S. President and the efforts of his foreign policy team to create a meaningful and lasting diplomatic legacy for the 44th president. As ambassador to the UN, Power plays a major role in the documentary as she and her colleagues travel the world on this quest.  For more on the movie, check out this Vogue article, which includes a trailer video for the documentary at the end.

In The Final Year, Power makes the provocative statement that she rejects values as the objective for her diplomacy work because in the real world, decision-making always come down to interests.

On the surface, this remark seems cynical, and in Power’s delivery it’s evident that she meant it that way, to be an expression of her frustration or even disappointment with the many complicating and impeding factors that come between the intentions of her work and the achievability of actual outcomes.  However, there’s a practical reality at play in these words that should be embraced for a full understanding of conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas in contemplating and making choices.

Recognizing that opposing and overlapping interests can often crowd out the values that originally motivate us, what if we commit more often for our values to be the major factor in determining those interests with which we lead?  Our choices will be more easily-reconciled with our values, for one thing, and over time, the individuals and organizations in our culture will more accurately reflect those values.

The excuses we make to explain away bad behavior, the easy choices we go for that betray our real motivations and ambitions, and the euphemisms we employ to excuse ourselves from broadening our frameworks and doing the hard work – such as not calling fraud by its name or blaming compliance culture failures on legal misunderstandings – live in the gap between values and interests.  In order to overcome this difference, we must be the change we wish to see, in both tone and conduct.

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