Nuclear annihilation has been considered a grave threat through most of my life, probably with good cause. I have reached an age, however, where I doubt that I have much to fear from a nuclear explosion. Car wrecks, disease, or even falling off a ladder seem more likely threats than an atomic blast. I think the same principle is often true of threats to our values.
Most of us are not inclined to steal, cheat, lie or otherwise violate the values we have been taught throughout our lives. We know how to avoid the “nuclear” threats, but we may be vulnerable to the more mundane erosion of what’s really important to us. I occasionally receive reminders of this problem in daily life.
There have been times when I have seen someone doing something or heard something that I found inappropriate or offensive and made the easy decision to walk away without confronting the problem. It may have been a bad joke, a disrespectful comment, or just a bad judgment call about how to deal with an issue, but for a number of reasons I decided the costs of confrontation exceeded the benefits of avoiding a bad reaction to my intervention. Knowing when we can or should really make a difference is not always easily discerned.
I have almost always found it useful to discuss these moral dilemmas with people I trust. A few weeks ago I was driving home for lunch when I saw a young girl I knew from our church hitchhiking on Highway 99. I didn’t really stop to think before pulling over to give her a ride home and some gentle counsel about the dangers of hitchhiking. Later, I talked with my wife and some friends at church about whether I had made the right decision. We all agreed that stopping was the right thing to do, while acknowledging the risks associated with my decision. I have learned that all decisions involve risks, and the more meaningful choices usually involve the greatest chance of something going wrong.
Despite the downside, my general preference is to take on the uncomfortable challenge rather than avoid the potential conflict. If we do not stand up to wrongdoing or are fearful about what might happen to us if we venture too far from safe places, we run the greater risk of compromising our most important values and not really living at all.
Confronting bad behavior in the workplace is not a matter that generally requires force, coercion, or even much risk. Usually it’s just a simple reminder. I hope all of us will have the courage and the discretion to know when personal or organizational values are being threatened and act accordingly.