Exploring Ethical Dilemmas for Project Leaders

Beverly Peters, Assistant Professor

I teach Professional Ethics and Project Leadership in the online Measurement and Evaluation Program at American University's Office of Graduate & Professional Studies. As an evaluator, I have managed and worked on many community development projects in the U.S., and in southern and West Africa, over the course of the last 25 years.

I have practical work experience ranging from small microenterprise projects to medium-scale education projects, to directing and managing large-scale, multimillion-dollar legislative strengthening plans, elections, women's political participation, and political party projects.

One common theme I have found throughout this experience in academia and project management is the similarity of the ethics and leadership challenges that arise in all my work. As an effective project manager, I need to have a framework to analyze these ethical dilemmas thoughtfully and thoroughly.

That framework, or what Joseph Weiss calls a stakeholder and issues management approach, is what we discuss over the course of eight weeks in my class in Professional Ethics and Project Leadership.

Navigating Stakeholder Relationships

My project management experience has shown that most of the ethical dilemmas we face do not have easy answers. They are not black and white, but rather, fall into a gray area. They are not legal dilemmas, but they do challenge our ethical thinking. To analyze such dilemmas, we need to understand the varied viewpoints of stakeholders.

Here is where my project leadership ethos comes into play: My experience has shown that "stakeholders" is not a homogenous group. Individuals within a particular stakeholder group have different perspectives, interests, and motivations. There can also be hidden power relationships between stakeholders.

I can relate this back to the example I shared in a previous blog article, Ethics, Leadership, and Evaluation: A Personal ReflectionIn that article, I discuss an ethical dilemma I faced related to the cultural beliefs of the Himba population in Namibia. Within that population, different stakeholders—leaders, elders, women, cattle owners, landholders, and the youth—had different perspectives, interests, and motivations surrounding the outcome of the dilemma.

This dynamic, and the local-level politics associated with it, can limit the voice or input from certain segments of the population. Power relations can make it difficult for us as project leaders to understand the varied experiences and interests within one stakeholder group. As project leaders dedicated to promoting equity and diversity, we must find ways to uncover the perspectives of all stakeholders before making decisions on ethical dilemmas.

Exposing Unconscious Bias

We also must find ways to uncover unconscious bias that can lead to discrimination. Unconscious bias can impact the way we think about ethical dilemmas, and as project leaders, we need to uncover these biases as we investigate all sides of an issue, collect data, ask questions, and mediate conflict.

How do we do this? I recommend a self-identity audit, as described by qualitative researcher Sarah Tracy. When carrying out a self-identity audit, you reflect on your identity and how it impacts the perceptions you have, as well as the perceptions others have of you. According to Tracy, you should ask yourself how your identity and social attributes (gender, sex, age, ethnicity, religion, social class, education level, etc.) affect your perceptions, involvement, and reception in a specific context.

A self-identity audit is also important as we address ethical concerns inherent to measurement and evaluation. When we conduct an evaluation, we often hold a certain amount of power over the population or client, like it or not. We sometimes come from an organization funding or implementing a project or providing services. How does this impact the relationship we have with stakeholders?

We should remember that our reports can impact the direction of a project and the lives of project participants, and this is surely not lost on implementers, community members, or clients. It should not be lost on us as evaluators and presents one of the biggest personal ethical challenges relating to our discipline.

Learn to Face Dilemmas Head-On

As a student in my Professional Ethics and Project Leadership class, you will discuss these issues and common ethical dilemmas that we face as project leaders today. You will consider that most of the ethical dilemmas we face do not have easy right or easy wrong answers. Instead, they require thoughtful, ethical thinking as effective project leaders.

About the Author

Assistant Professor Beverly Peters, Ph.D., is a specialist in human security in Africa and has written extensively on economic development, democratization, and HIV/AIDS. She has more than 20 years of experience teaching, conducting research, and managing projects in southern and West Africa.

An expert on political and economic development in Zimbabwe, she has provided political analyses to the government of South Africa and the private sector, and she is regularly featured in local and international media, including the South African Broadcasting Corporation news, The New York Times, Voice of America, and Radio France International.

To learn more about American University's online MS in Measurement & Evaluation or Graduate Certificate in Project Monitoring & Evaluation, you can request more information or call us toll-free at 855-725-7614.


Tracy, Sarah. Qualitative Research Methods. Somerset, NJ: Wiley, 2013.

Weiss, Joseph W. Business Ethics: A Stakeholder and Issues Management Approach. Sixth edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett Koelher Publishers, 2014.