How Do We Reconcile a Person’s Professional Contributions with Their Personal Behaviors?

Every community contains “messy” humans. We are all imperfect in many ways. Too often, we show these imperfections in our communities. That’s when our professional contributions collide with our personal messiness.

Let me confess right now: I am not perfect. At all. I have a healthy ego. I often wonder when my ego crosses the line into arrogance.  Do I offend people with my arrogance? Probably.

However, my arrogance does not create a problem for other people’s careers and lives. My messiness doesn’t challenge any other person’s ability to succeed and contribute to a professional community.

Let me take just two communities I work in as a professional: the agile community and the greater writing community.

In the agile community, I see too many misogynistic behaviors, both at conferences and online. (Misogyny means a hatred of women.) Do I know if these people literally hate women? No, I don’t. However, their actions lead me to believe they don’t believe women are as capable as men—as a general statement. Sure, one or two special women might be capable? But women in general? No.

Maybe what I see as misogyny is a lack of self-esteem. Sometimes, a lack of self-esteem means a person feels the need to elevate themselves above everyone else. (Think of this as a zero-sum game.) I only know what the behavior looks like to me.

I’ve seen and experienced terrible behavior at conferences. I excel at deflecting inappropriate overtures—both professional and personal. However, many people still experience these behaviors. That’s why many of the conferences now have codes of conduct.

What happens when some of those same “messy” people make terrific professional contributions?

Should We Separate the Professional from the Personal?

I don’t have a direct answer to this question. Instead, I can only tell you what works for me.

For example, when I think about dead people, such as Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science-fiction novelist, I can choose if and when to read his work. (I do sometimes read his work to study.)

What about Harvey Weinstein? “His” movies are not just his—the movies also belong to the actors and the directors who made the movies. I have watched and continue to watch “his” movies because they don’t just belong to him.

What about so-called “thought leaders” in the other communities, such as the agile community? I choose not to read their work. When I need to reference one of “their” ideas, I find another source as a reference. Side note: very few so-called thought leaders actually invent anything. Instead, most of us work as a loosely-connected symmathesy. We learn together, pushing and pulling at each other’s ideas to create more and better ideas.

When so-called leaders attempt to disenfranchise other people because they:

  • Disagree with another person’s ideas
  • Discriminate on the basis of sex, gender, race
  • Demand that someone should accede to their personal wishes, especially with sexual overtures

We all lose. Those so-called leaders might lead intellectually. They lose the personal integrity that keeps them at the “top” of their professional community.

Worse, the truth always comes out. No one can keep actions that violate personal integrity a secret for too long. (See Leadership Tip #2: Do the Right Thing, Even When it Feels Uncomfortable.)

And yet, I do speak at some conferences where these messy people speak. Why? Because I cannot change anyone else’s actions. However, when I participate, I can raise my concerns.

My decision may not fit for you. That’s fine. We each have lines we will and will not cross.

That’s the question this week: How do we reconcile a person’s professional contributions with their personal behaviors?

2 thoughts on “How Do We Reconcile a Person’s Professional Contributions with Their Personal Behaviors?

  1. mlbrowne

    I think that character is destiny, yet somehow we are always faced with the issues of subjective versus objective when it comes to morality and ethics.What people do in their own time, using their own resources, and without concern over social constraints or norms? It’s their own business, right?

    I disagree. I’ve learned that people — most of us, anyway — are creatures of habit, and what we have in our hearts and minds as being acceptable to act on, we will eventually remain true to form and act on in public, professionally, or personally.

    With the examples you mention, particularly Harvey Weinstein, I am reminded that such men (Cosby, Spacey, Weinstein, Wagner, Mailer, et al) are mostly guilty of preying upon people they perceive as vulnerable, all the while holding themselves up as paragons of virtue and pillars of society. They seek ways to satisfy their personal desires, based on the power and influence they derive from their artistic, professional accomplishments. While I do agree with you that nobody is perfect (is such a thing even possible?), I believe that there are limits to what we can tolerate, and still have our normative social contracts remain intact.

    I’ll be honest — a few years back, I went to the movies with a friend to see “Wonder Woman,” and had a great time, thoroughly entertained by a surprisingly complex and well-written story. “Great time,” that is, until the end credits rolled. My friend and I are people who will watch until the screen goes black and the sound ends. Ten seconds before the ending, a single name appeared on the screen, along with his title; “Steven Mnuchin, Executive Producer.”

    By the time I saw the movie, I had enough experience / data about Steven Mnuchin to know what a bad man he is, and how he was working actively to hurt “the little guys” in favor of corporate interests. As I read the name, the whole experience of the film was diminished for me. I suddenly saw it, and the work as a whole (actors, cinematographers, scriptwriters, grips, electricians, SFX engineers) as an effort to put money in the pocket of a man whose values revealed him to be unethical and immoral. It was too late to ask for my money back, but I did make a point of giving the film a bad review at IMDB, based on the man who financed it — and I think Mnuchin is probably less of a monster than Weinstein or Cosby.

    The world is big, and our lives are brief — because of this, I do what Maya Angelou says: “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.” Later, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, she added, “The first time.”

    If the person in question lacks judgment, morals, ethics and commitment in his or her personal life, and I find out about it, that’s enough for me to expect that there will eventually be more of the same in the professional life, and instead of hurting one victim, there will be many affected by those shortcomings. It’s a deliberate form of deception and manipulation they do.

    What always amazes me, however, is that they think they can sustain the deception, and never be revealed for who they are.

    1. Johanna Post author

      Marsha, thanks. I’m not sure we are creatures of habit as much as we are who we are. We are consistent. Yes, to me, these men are all bullies. Bullies prey on the weak and vulnerable.

      I love that quote from Maya Angelou. I suspect that many bullies learn what they can get away with the first time, and then extend that.

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