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Ethics Lessons From a Tricky Card Game

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Why is it that, despite good intentions, some business leaders still make wrong choices?

Most often, the answer is that they were distracted or misled by someone else. In a moment of confusion, or compromise, even a leader who strongly believes in doing the right thing can lose focus in the company of a few unethical actors.

One of the most iconic tests of focus is the game Three-card Monte. Often played on a makeshift table in a crowded street, a dealer places three cards face down in front of a player with one card designated as the target. The dealer then shuffles the cards quickly to try and confuse the player about which is which. If the player can still select the target afterwards, he wins.

Three-card Monte - Web

Dealers of Three-card Monte are known to pull all kinds of tricks to try and confuse players into making the wrong choice. And it’s only the players who can see through these tactics and focus on the target card that win. In other words, Three-card Monte comes down to understanding where your focus can get tripped up.

Three-card Monte isn’t too different from ethical leadership in business. In both scenarios, the key to making the right choice is knowing where deception can happen and staying focused on the target. Here are three tips I’ve drawn from the game that can help with that focus:

Clarify the Details

In Three-card Monte, the dealer often repeats chants or riddles that draw your attention away from the target card, such as commenting on the people standing around you. If look away for a spilt second, he knows you’ll lose track of the target.

Similarly in business, dishonest people may rush through or gloss over important details of a deal. Or, they’ll change the subject when concerns are raised, all in order to divert attention away from a potential ethical issue.

The best way to prevent this is to stop, ask for clarification and take the time to understand the nitty-gritty of your project. This allows you to better analyze the information being presented, without creating potential animosity by accusing the other person of wrongdoing.

Consider Motives

Another popular trick used by Three-card Monte dealers is peer pressure. Just as you are about to pick the correct card, a helpful “onlooker” may pull you aside and tell you to pick a different card. The dealers know that having multiple people tell you to make a certain choice can make you question your initial (and right) decision.

The same thing can happen with business decisions. You may feel pressured into doubting yourself by a group of people who, under the guise of trying to help, are actually looking after their own interests.

To prevent this, it’s important to consider every piece of advice in the context of what its giver stands to gain or lose from taking it.

Consider the Wider Impact and Take a Stand

It’s not beyond possibility for some Three-card Monte dealers to flat out cheat by using sleight of hand to remove the target card from the set at some point in the game. Similarly, there are a small minority of business leaders who will lie and mislead others for their own gain.

It can be difficult and uncomfortable, but the only thing to do when you discover such corruption is to take a stand. Often, the biggest challenge to this is your own mistakes. You may be tempted to say to yourself something like, Who am I to judge this person? I don’t want to be considered a hypocrite, so I’ll just stay quiet…

But calling out misconduct is not just about you or the offender. Your responsibility is to prevent others from being harmed by the continuation of the unethical activity. In some cases your failure to report misconduct could even be considered negligence or complicity.

If possible, you should try to follow this process: explain to the unethical actors why their actions are hurtful to others; ask them to stop the behavior immediately; take appropriate further actions according to both the severity/legal consequences of their behavior and their reactions to being confronted.

All too often, good leaders who act unethically do so for lack of one of these two qualities: an appreciation for the fact that even good leaders can be misdirected into making bad choices; and a practical knowledge of how their principles might be tripped up. The former has to do with humility. The latter is about focus.

Applying these three tips will help you to sharpen your focus on being an ethical leader by helping you spot the subtle tricks that often accompany a bad deal.

Always remember, Leadership is a Lifestyle.

— Ryan W. Hirsch

Program Manager, NASBA Center for the Public Trust