Standing on Principle: Small Change Yields a Big Return

Do you know someone who will fight vigilantly over a small overcharge in a restaurant check because, as he says, “It’s the principle of the thing!” At first you may wonder what the big deal is, but if you look beneath the surface and consider the real “principle of the thing”, you might think differently. Getting what you pay for is a principle worth standing-up for. Not being taken advantage of is another good one. The fundamental principle of “the customer is always right” is absolutely right.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.” What are your “sacred” principles in life? What are those core beliefs that you would fight for? We all have them. In relationships and marriage there are the principles of fidelity and commitment. In the legal world the principle of justice rules the day. Our modern culture has principles of equality that civil rights leaders fought so hard to achieve. The American Revolutionary War was not fought over the price of tea but the principles of representation and freedom. Most people will not go to their graves fighting for a rule but for a principle…maybe.

What principles would you fight for? In your workplace, are there principles that are worth losing your job over? When everyone else in the room agrees to do something that is against your principles do you take the risk of saying something? As you’re reading this article, stop now and take time to think about what principles you hold dear.

One can say that rules are extrinsic and principles are intrinsic. That is, rules govern our behavior on the outside. The workplace is full of rules for everything from how you dress to where you can surf on the internet. Whether by rationalization, willful intent, or ignorance, breaking rules can be relatively easy. In fact, you can break rules without even knowing it. Principles are different.

Principles are intrinsic. They are deeply held beliefs upon which all our rules in life are based. You can’t break a principle and not know it. You don’t find yourself saying, “Oops! I just broke a principle. Oh well, I’ll try harder next time!” It’s not that easy. If it’s truly a principle then it can’t be thrown out at will or forgotten. It’s more than just nice sounding “life goals”. Sure, we can say that our principle for work is “honesty is the best policy.” But if we’re not willing to adhere to it or stand-up for it then it’s not a principle but something else less sacred.

There are times in life when you blow it and you go against your principles or you fail to stand up for them. Although you are entitled to make mistakes once in a while, they should be rare exceptions in your ethical decision-making process. If “honesty is the best policy” then you shouldn’t take lying to customers lightly. If for some reason you find your principles being challenged, your instinct should be to fight. For example, if you have a principle that “family comes first, ” but you are required to work overtime day after day, then it’s time that you do something about it or find another job. To go on and on breaking your principles will eventually sweep them away into the more nebulous categories of “personal life-goals” or “good rules to live by.”

Without principle, emotions, situations, and selfishness will take over your ethical decision-making. However difficult standing on principle may be, not standing on principle is worse in the long-run. There is a great sense of personal satisfaction that comes from knowing where you stand and being a little stubborn about not budging. You don’t do it for the glory or for immediate gain (that’s easy enough to do without principles). You do it because your character, conscience, and inner being depend on it. You do it as if your life depended on it. And you do it because, in the grand scheme of things, you will have the peace and confidence that comes with knowing who you are.

So the next time your friend makes a scene at a restaurant over a few dollars and his principles, don’t cover your face and slink out that door. That’s a person who you can count on to stand-up for principle despite what other people think. Remember that when both of you walk out that restaurant you can hold your heads high because your principles were not treaded upon…and the few extra bucks doesn’t hurt either.