Premeditatio malorum

I occasionally write about Stoicism on this blog. I find the philosophy well suited for E&C professionals.

The Stoics like to do an exercise called premeditatio malorum, imagining things that could go wrong or be taken away. Stoics are not pessimists, they simply like to be prepared.

Seneca, one of the richest man of Rome and a Stoic, would regularly practice poverty. He would eat a meager fare, walk around town with ragged clothes and barefoot, and sleep on the floor. He knew he might lose all his money one day. He had seen it happen to others and didn’t foolishly believe himself immune to misfortune. He wanted to be prepared. And so each day that he was still rich, he enjoyed it.

We all do this exercise from time to time. We read the news, learn of somebody else’s misfortune resulting from an earthquake, a flood, or a tornado, and for a brief second we try to imagine ourselves in their shoes. The thought alone is often so uncomfortable that we quickly abandon it.

What did the average American or European think about when they first heard of the coronavirus outbreak in China? How many asked themselves how they would react if their own government banned gatherings, closed schools and restaurants, and locked down entire towns? More importantly for this blog, how many E&C professionals thought about the new risks that could be created by such a situation?

Premeditatio malorum is a simple exercise that gets you ready for challenges, softens the blow when they actually happen, and makes you grateful when they don’t.

Are you ready to report?

Seneca recommended that we practice poverty in case we became poor.

Soldiers sweat in times of peace so they bleed less in times of war.

Likewise, employees should practice reporting wrongdoing before there is anything to report. The ethical leader should gather her team and periodically ask: “If you noticed [blank], how would you report it?” This is easy to do. Just look at this morning’s headlines to identify some corporate wrongdoing to discuss with your team.

As Mary Gentile described in her book Giving Voice to Values, people who observe wrongdoing know what to do but they struggle with the how. Who should I report this wrongdoing to? When? What should I say? Should I go alone or bring someone with me? It can all be confusing and paralyzing.

A well-trained soldier does not paralyze on the battlefield.

Love the process

I’m not going to be happy just when I finally buy the New York Jets. I’m happy now trying to buy the NY Jets. You have to love the process.

Gary Vaynerchuk

Ethics and compliance professionals aim for specific outcomes. We strive to reduce the pressure that employees feel to engage in wrongdoing, to reduce the number of instances employees notice wrongdoing around them, to increase their levels of reporting when they do see wrongdoing, and to decrease instances of retaliation when they report wrongdoing.

We engage in specific actions to reach these outcomes. We seek to draft simple policies, to create effective training, to communicate clear expectations, to investigate swiftly, and to discipline fairly.

As with all in life, we have more control over our actions than we do over our desired outcomes. Thus the key to a happy work life for an E&C professional is to love the process, to do each task as well as we can, in the present. If we devote ourselves to this art, we should get the outcomes we seek. If we don’t, we’ve been handed a learning putting us back on the path to mastery.

What would [insert your name here] do?

We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone it can respect, by whose example it can make its inner sanctum more inviolable. Happy is the person who can improve others, not only when present, but even when in their thoughts!

Seneca, Moral Letters, 11.9

Seneca was a powerful Roman statesman and he was rich. He had the cover and the means to do pretty much as he pleased, just like today’s rich and powerful.

But like most Stoic philosophers, he sought to live a good life. When tempted to go wrong, he would imagine Cato the Younger by his side. “What would Cato do?”, he would ask himself. Given Cato’s reputation for moral rectitude, this was the equivalent of today’s newspaper test.

As we think of the rich and powerful who were recently dragged to testify in front of US political committees, beaten by the media, and ridiculed by late show hosts, we can safely assume that they now wish they had done things differently. Unable to hear the cognitive dissonance on their own, they now wish a trusted friend had spoken up.

Living a good life not only provides you with peace of mind, it also makes you a Cato for someone else.

Token of appreciation

When my kids open the fridge and complain that “there is nothing to eat”, I remind them that there is a big difference between having no food and not having your favorite foods.

It’s the same difference between being homeless and not living in the house of your dreams. Or between having no car and driving a car that doesn’t have a Bluetooth connection to your phone. Where has gratitude gone?

At work, customer-facing employees often complain that they “can’t give any gifts”. Unless they are dealing with government officials, that’s often not true.Their real complaint is that they can’t give the type of gifts that will wow the customer. They forget that gifts are often not required, and that when they are truly necessary, a modest gift is way better than no gift at all.

Any employee believing that a lavish gift is necessary must consider the possibility that they are facing a bribe request.

The only thing you control are your ethical choices

The Stoics taught us that we should focus exclusively on what’s within our control.

It turns out that the only thing within our control is our mind. Our bodies can get sick any day; our possessions can break or be destroyed or stolen; even a piece of jewelry in the bank safe is outside of our control.

For the business leader, this means that the only thing she truly controls are her ethical choices. Of course, she can use her judgment and reason to implement a compliance program – complete with policies, training, controls and audits, but she won’t be able to control how others respond to these efforts.

This reality might be unnerving to anyone seeking certainty in all aspects of life but chasing that ideal is the quickest path to unhappiness.

The ability to abstain

It’s been said that addiction is when we’ve lost our ability to abstain.

To abstain from alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, drugs, food, and sex – of course.

But also from the internet, our phone, sports on TV, Netflix and video games.

And, at work, from being negative, complaining, gossiping, and losing our temper. If we do any of these things at work, we are setting the wrong example. If we tolerate any of these things in others, we are not leading.

On patience and kindness

I have little patience for complaining.

Generally, I find that people complain too much and too loudly about things they should simply accept or quietly work to change.

This character trait makes me ill-suited for a part of my job as an ethics & compliance officer, the part where I receive allegations of wrongdoing.

When I feel my blood starting to boil (i.e. when I feel the urge to complain), I bring to mind the following quotes:

Patience is not how long you can wait but how well you behave while you wait.

– Timber Hawkeye

Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for kindness.

– Seneca

This allows me to set my pain aside and seek to understand and alleviate another’s pain.