Do the ends justify the means?

Turn on the tele to any channel at the moment and you are spoilt for choice with shows that ask us to question if the ends justify the means. Our top-rated shows on streaming platforms typically follow the main character (the good guy) who, when faced with an impossible scenario, bends the rules, or cuts a corner, or makes one poor decision. And, then spends the rest of the show or series forced to make many more bad decisions to cover up the original act of poor judgment.

Imagine a storyline where the main character is faced with the choice of saving the world, by putting the people they love at serious risk. Or, where the main character must kidnap and restrain another person against their will to avoid a catastrophe. We have all seen the shows. We have all identified with the ‘yes, in this situation the ends do justify the means’ moment, where the character breaks their own rules or ethical code.

Audiences love these shows of human frailty, poor judgment, and ultimate redemption because we can all identify with them. There is not one person among us that hasn’t been faced with decisions that, due to the circumstances require some corner-cutting or rule-bending. But rarely are the actions and consequences decisions we face as straight-forward as the impossible scenarios that unfold in the movies.

Bending the rules

But, Rule-bender, beware! It is a slippery slope. Bending the rules comes in many forms, including:

  • The person who deliberately and knowingly breaches the rules
  • The person who accidentally breaches the rules
  • The person who is burying a breach of the rules
  • The person who is making up new rules

The slippery slope is not just a hazard for the person who is deliberately and knowingly acting against rules, regulations, or guidance. It is also a hazard for the person who does not inform themselves of the rules and makes decisions without awareness. Our own Commonwealth Criminal Code stipulates that mistake or ignorance of the existence or application of legislation is no excuse for an offence. Meaning, just because you didn’t know about the rule is not a good enough reason to have breached it. Likewise, hiding something, covering up or not speaking out when there has been an infraction against the rules is a breach of the rules and codes too.

And, what about the slippery slope associated with creating new rules when the existing rules cannot be applied due to ‘unprecedented times’ or ‘unusual circumstances.’ These new rules will be developed to cater for the specifics of the situation at hand, which is likely to be the exception to other, more regular circumstances; when the regular rules do apply. But who gets to make the decision about what types of situations fall into the ‘unprecedented times’ and ‘unusual circumstances’ category?

Could you have ever imagined..

Cast your mind back across the last five years and think about the geo-political environment we live in. Could you ever have imagined a situation where the leader of a democratic country had the unfettered ability to appoint mates to senior roles in government, only to sack them months later because they didn’t unconditionally follow his crazy thinking? Seems impossible, but it happened!

Could you ever have imagined a situation where the leader of another country secretly had himself sworn into key political Ministries without parliamentary or public scrutiny, and without the incumbent Ministers being aware this had occurred? Unlikely, but it happened!

Could you see a situation where a senior government official would publicly admit to breaching the Code of Conduct because she lacked the courage to speak out against poor decision-making occurring at even higher levels of office? I imagine not. But it happened!

How about one of the most advanced democracies in the world allowing the retrograde step of winding back women’s rights by 50 years? Surely, that couldn’t occur. But it happened!

What about decisions made in the gambling industry which opened our shores to increased organised crime and left unwitting casino staff exposed to detention in China? Yep. It happened!

Or, widespread charges for no service by major banks who also exploited vulnerable customers within our communities. Guess what? It happened!

In all these cases, you can bet the people involved look back and ask themselves ‘How did that go so wrong? How did that get to where it did?’ The answer to that is pretty straight-forward…it started with a single decision or action that was bending the rules ‘just this once,’ or ‘just in these unusual circumstances’.

It is not just senior officials in government or C-suite executives in big companies that get caught out exercising poor decision-making ‘due to unforeseen and unusual circumstances.’

We are all exposed to getting caught out exercising poor decision-making

There are three main reasons for this:

1. It gets easier once you’ve done it once

We all think our moral or ethical boundaries are fixed. That we would not shift them for any reason. Hang on a minute, didn’t we already establish that we side with the good guy character than when faced with an impossible scenario bends the rules? Because in those circumstances the ends justify the means, right? Well, while that original decision might be difficult to make, once it has been made you have ‘crossed the Rubicon’. You have passed through an invisible gate you thought you would never need to. When faced with a comparable situation down the track, how do you think most people react? Do you will think they will remember the ethical struggle they had in coming to that decision and decide not to do it again? Or, do they resign themselves to ‘I have done it once, so I may as well do it again’? You guessed it! Behavioural insights research shows us that most of us will take the ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ approach. Already being guilty of breaking the rules makes us predisposed to being prepared to break the rules again. And, with each infraction the degree to which we break the rules grows. In this way, the moral or ethical boundary shifts further and further away each time. At some point in the future, you may look back and ask, ‘how did it get to this from one small bend of the rules?’

2. It has a knock-on effect to other poor decisions

When I was younger a wise, old sage once told me that if a person lies once, they will probably have to cover it up with another lie, and then they will have to cover that lie with another lie, and so on…until even they don’t remember what the truth was. The remedy to this was remarkably simple…Don’t tell the first lie! Well, bending the rules and cutting corners is also a bit like that. Remember the good guy character from that movie or TV show that made one poor decision and then had to make a series of other unethical or immoral decisions in order to recover from the original bad decision? In real life, it is easier to get stuck in this type of situation than you might think. Bend a rule ‘just this once’ and you might find yourself needing to bend another rule to justify your original decision, and another one to justify that. At some point in the future, you may look back and ask, ‘how did it get to this from one small bend of the rules?’

3. It creates a precedent for others to follow

At the very least, stepping over a line once gives you a precedent to justify doing it again yourself. Worse still is that it creates a precedent for others to follow suit. Maybe it will be just a couple of people justifying stepping over the line once each. Or perhaps it will snowball into a playbook for operating right on the boundary of right and wrong for a whole industry.

While most unintended consequences might be obvious at the time of taking a decision, and can therefore be avoided at the time, we also must ask what precedent is created with a single decision or action that bends the rules.

Better practice governance and decision-making

How do we, as part of our everyday decision-making avoid making our organisations infamous because of the slippery slope of poor decision-making? How do we avoid creating infamous victims of our own decisions? Back to that wise, old sage…the remedy is simple…don’t take it upon yourself to bend the rules that first time. Not even if the rules can’t be easily applied due to unusual circumstances.


1. Be familiar with the rules, regulations, and decision-making guidance in place. If you are not sure, CHECK!

2. Follow the rules, regulations, and guidance.

3. If there are situations where the ethical or moral integrity of a decision could be questioned, don’t proceed. Instead, confer and collaborate with other professionals, seek legal or governance advice, and reach an agreed (documented) position about the appropriate way to proceed.

4. Where you feel the rules can’t or shouldn’t be applied either due to unusual circumstances, or because there is not any applicable guidance, escalate. This might mean seeking authorised exception for a particular course of action or seeking to have rules formally adapted to cater to the unusual circumstances of the decision you are faced with.

For a practical free self-assessment of your decision-making, take a look at my Better Practice Governance Model and Maturity Assessment. It might help highlight potential weaknesses in your decision-making patterns.

And, from now on, with each instance where you feel bending the rules might be necessary, stop, and think…’Could this decision or action I am about to take lead to other decisions or actions others will take? And, if that same decision or action was taken a number of times, or applied to different situations what might the knock-on effect be?

Might I find myself part of a Federal Inquiry, or appearing before a Royal Commission, or on the front page of the paper?’

Here’s hoping not!

But if you have any doubts reach out to our Governance expert Charitee Davies