Bowing to pressure and disregarding priorities can lead to disaster, so retaining your professional integrity is the wisest course.
The 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster demonstrates very tragically the importance of sticking to your professional thinking when you undertake a task.
In January 1986, NASA was counting down to launch the Challenger with seven astronauts on board, including Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first US teacher in space. But NASA’s contracted engineers, Morton Thiokol, would not approve the launch because of the expected cold weather in Cape Canaveral, which could cause problems with the O-rings in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters.
Two previous launch dates had been abandoned due to the bad weather.
This tragedy may have been avoided if the focus had been on values, not just outcomes.
The night before the scheduled launch on 28 January, a unanimous decision by the engineers not to launch became a decision to launch. There was a lot of pressure – millions of people around the globe were expecting to see the take-off.
Late at night, the engineers reversed their decision and gave the OK for the launch. To overcome his resistance, the last objecting engineer had been told: “Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.”
And he did. The launch was sealed and the Challenger exploded less than two minutes after lift-off.
What hat we wear is important.
For professional accountants, for example, keeping the accounting hat on is paramount, even if the consequences of taking it off are not as immediate or as tragic as the Challenger tragedy. Pressure on all professional accountants to change priorities and perspectives should be expected.
These pressures may be as explicit as those the Challenger engineers faced or they may be very subtle. Regardless of where we sit in the hierarchy, we need to develop responses that enable us to present our professional values so we do not allow any doubt as to their appropriateness, relevance and strength.
The Challenger disaster happened in the absence of bad intentions. Nobody wanted the tragedy to happen. But it happened because the focus was on some goals and not others, and the engineers wanted to please their large client. This tragedy may have been avoided if the focus had been on values, not just outcomes.
Dr Eva Tsahuridu is CPA Australia’s policy adviser, professional standards and governance.
This article is from the December 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK