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Ethics: At the Heart of Project Management

written by: John P. Reiling • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 3/22/2016

Putting the PMI Code of Ethics, and topic of project management ethics in general, into perspective will enable you to harness ethics as a motivational engine to help you become a multi-faceted project manager - more resilient, versatile and effective.

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    Ethics: At the Heart of Project Management The topic of ethics in project management often seems like an afterthought. It’s plugged in there because it has to be, just like with for every other profession.

    As a result, the topic of ethics seems almost peripheral – separate and distinct – from the rest of what it takes to be a competent project manager. This thinking misses the whole point: ethics is part and parcel of every aspect of project management. In fact, it is the critical element necessary to being truly a master of the craft of project management.

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    All too often, project managers are caught up in the dogma. After all, the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide is a standard, right? As a standard, shouldn’t you be able to apply it like any other scientific, technological or engineering standard? That’s where the problem – and the opportunity – lies.

    Yes, the PMBOK guide is a standard. It is also explicitly referred to as a “framework.” It’s not meant to be applied as a set of instructions.

    In other words, project management is as much an art as a science. The framework that the PMBOK Guide provides defines the space, gives a rich vocabulary and delivers a set of concepts derived from the collective knowledge of practitioners from around the world and in a wide range of situations that have one core thing in common – they manage projects.

    Leveraging it is very useful, but you need to remember that there is an art to managing projects. The black and white framework more or less defines the space – like defining the scope – but everything in between is gray area.

    The gray areas are where ethics comes into play.

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    Gray Areas

    Here is how ethics lives in the gray areas:

    • Ethics is where character comes into play.
    • Ethics is where judgments are made – and how they are made.
    • Ethics is where standards of performance are really settled.
    • Ethics is the glue that holds together the team.
    • Ethics is what guides the relationships among all stakeholders.
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    An Ethical View

    In the end, there are two pictures of the world of a project:

    1. A strictly functional, structural, or “product” centric picture, where projects are objects
    2. A picture as a living, managed, value-driven process that needs to be nurtured artfully to achieve a worthy end

    The second picture is the more realistic and productive way of viewing projects. It results in a more robust set of outcomes. It is a more multifaceted viewpoint and requires more multifaceted people to manage. It requires more resilience, versatility and effectiveness. Do you think that ethics is the glue that holds the structure together – and enables it to be worked?

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    About the Author

    John P. Reiling is a versatile, results-driven technologist and manager and is recognized for leveraging his broad business experience, technical knowledge and analytical skills to drive change and help organizations achieve their strategic objectives. John loves sharing ideas through his articles and is eager to hear feedback. John is also the President of, which provides project management training for certification and PDUs 24x7.