The Manager’s Oath

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By I Done This Support

“First, do no harm”—it’s a fundamental principle of medical ethics and constant reminder to every medical professional that intervention carries risks just as inaction does. In Latin, it’s Primum non nocere:

Another way to state it is that, “given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good”. It reminds the physician and other health care providers that they must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do. It is invoked when debating the use of an intervention that carries an obvious risk of harm but a less certain chance of benefit.

It’s something that’s easy to forget for doctors, because they view themselves as healers and they’re capable of tremendous good. But it’s an absolutely vital to check the behavioral tendency that Abraham Kaplan called the law of the instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” What’s important is the health of the patient, not the dilemma between intervention and inaction.

In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer discovered a surprising fact about what motivates people at work that every manager should know. The most powerful positive motivator for people at work is making progress in meaningful work, but it pales in comparison with the negative impact of hitting dead ends and encountering setbacks which has the greatest effect on motivation.

Professor Amabile and Kramer analyzed the language used in nearly 12,000 employee diary entries for accounts of progress and setbacks, and they compared appearances of those events to self-reported emotional levels of happiness and frustration, and what they found was alarming.  Setbacks were greater than three times as powerful in increasing frustration than the power of progress to diminish it.


What comes next should be embarrassing to managers but not surprising: the frustration, deflated sense of accomplishment, and diminished happiness that results from setbacks and obstacles at work often came straight from managers themselves. Stories like Lucas’s were all too common:

During our new product review meeting, the MT basically told us what our top priorities were [for] new product development.  [ … ]  It was discouraging that our “freedom” to choose our direction / priorities was taken away from us as a team and we were given our direction, rather than being allowed to make more decisions on our own.  [Lucas, 6/30]

Amabile, Teresa; Kramer, Steven (2011-07-19). The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (p. 15). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition. 

Where setbacks can have a disproportionately deleterious effect on an employee’s happiness, and motivation fed by managerial intervention is the not-uncommon cause, “First, do no harm” should be the manager’s oath.  This is all-the-more important when you consider just how vital employee autonomy is to happiness at work.

Doing no harm requires awareness that the people you work with are human, with lives, feelings, concerns, depth. In his book How Will You Remember Your Life?, Harvard Business School professor and founder of a company called CPS Technologies Clayton Christensen described an epiphany he had about what makes us tick when he observed Diana, a scientist in his lab, with her family at a company picnic:

Seeing her there, I began to gain a perspective of Diana in the full context of her life. She wasn’t just a scientist. She was a mother and a wife, whose mood, whose happiness, and whose sense of self-worth had a huge impact on her family. I began to think about what it must be like in her house in the morning, as she said good-bye to her family on her way to work. Then I saw Diana in my mind’s eye as she came home to her family ten hours later, on a day that had gone badly. She felt underappreciated, frustrated, and demeaned; she learned little that was new. In that moment I felt like I saw how her day at work negatively affected the way she interacted in the evening with her husband and their young children.

This vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to the end of another day. On the one hand, she was so engaged by the experiment she was doing that she wanted to stay at work; but on the other, she was so looking forward to spending time with her husband and children that she clearly wanted to be at home. On that day, I saw her driving home with greater self-esteem — feeling that she had learned a lot, having been recognized in a positive way for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives for several scientists and for the company. I felt like I could see her go into her home at the end of that day with a replenished reservoir of esteem that profoundly affected her interaction with her husband and those two lovely children. And I also knew how she’d feel going into work the next day — motivated and energized.

Christensen, Clayton M.; Dillon, Karen; Allworth, James (2012-05-15). How Will You Measure Your Life? (pp. 26-27). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

When you take that fleshed out, three-dimensional perspective on the lives of your colleagues, the imperative behind the manager’s oath is simple but profound: we’re human beings whose mood, happiness, and self-esteem is hugely affected by what happens at work. And so first, and above all, do no harm. That should be the manager’s oath and the cornerstone for management ethics.

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images: [1] freestock.ca (caduceus); [2] striatic/Flickr


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