Ethics is about how we translate our values into action. During periods of rapid change, we have to be especially mindful of rocks in the river of life. Otherwise, we may lose our ethical center and capsize—finding ourselves floundering as we make decisions that aren’t our ethical best.
For those who want to kayak down a Class VI river, where violent whitewater presents a constant threat of death, one of the first skills to master is how to roll over in the craft and re-center. As the skill is learned, and then practiced on increasingly difficult stretches of water, paddlers are coached on how to be attentive to the water conditions and mindful of their own capabilities, strength, and balance.
Self-deception can be a powerful tool for becoming more ethical if we are willing to honestly describe the gap between what we do and what kind of a person we really want to be. Dr. Albert Bandura and others who research behavior modification report that if we pretend (a powerful form of self-deception) that we are the person we want to be, with the desired beliefs and behaviors, we can become that imagined person.For educators, our learners practice rolling over their kayak to discover their ethical core. We coach them on how to regain their balance when thrown off by the challenges of a class’s ethics component. Through conversations, case studies, and simulations—through engaging their imagination—learners discover what values are important to them, where they might encounter ethical boulders that can hurl them into the churning water, and how they can regain their ethical center. Faculty members can facilitate ethical growth by teaching students the same two critical skills taught kayakers: being attentive and being mindful.
Being attentive involves two different capabilities. The first is knowing ourselves, what values are important to us and how we want to translate those values into everyday behaviors. This knowledge also includes a healthy awareness of our ethical blind spots and weaknesses so when faced with a difficult situation, we can call on our strength instead of ending up on the rocks.
The second capability, learning to be attentive to others, allows us to understand and be attentive to those who are part of our team and riding the rapids with us. Often, we get so busy trying to ride our own personal rapids that we forget that others are on the journey with us. As we attend to both our own ethical journey and that of others, we will be able to safely navigate the whitewater of change.
Being mindful is the next competence. Being mindful involves not only paying attention but also having some sense of where we are going so we can complete the journey with ease and grace. To be ethically mindful, we need to be aware of four different aspects of our ethical self and keep them in balance.
One aspect is always remembering the kind of person we are and what we want to become. Another is being clear about the principles that guide us in life and how to use them appropriately in ever-changing situations. Another aspect is remembering that we live in community and need to consider whether our actions will support and strengthen the community or weaken it. Finally, we should identify our roles and strive for ethical excellence in each of those positions.
The dual skills of being attentive and mindful allow us to transform our ethics from mindlessly following rules and social conventions to thoughtfully discerning what beliefs and actions are the best in a particular time and place. These twin capacities also allow us to realize the power of personal responsibility and choice as we determine how we will ride the rapids of our personal, professional, and community life toward the safety of still waters.
And, like those who become exhilarated as they navigate a set of Class VI rapids, churning waters that terrify most of us, we can equip ourselves and our learners with the ethical skills to embrace and celebrate times of turbulent change. This ever-increasing set of competencies will give all of us the confidence to maintain our own ethical center as together we navigate the whitewater of life.
“What would it look like if…?” That phrase is the mother of all creative thinking. When puzzling over a problem to be solved, asking the question “What would it look like if…?” allows our creative juices to flow and new solutions to persistent problems to emerge. Often, however, we forget to ask that question when considering our ethics. We often think that following our instincts or loosely-defined shared norms is sufficient, even when faced with complex ethical issues.
Our ethics—the way we translate our values into action—determine what behaviors we embrace or avoid. Interestingly, asking the same question about our ethical behavior helps us imagine a path to ethical maturity. And then, self-deception—a healthy self-deception—can help us develop the capacity to resolve complex ethical issues and become a more effective ethical leader.
Self-deception can be a powerful tool for becoming more ethical if we are willing to honestly describe the gap between what we do and what kind of a person we really want to be. Dr. Albert Bandura and others who research behavior modification report that if we pretend (a powerful form of self-deception) that we are the person we want to be, with the desired beliefs and behaviors, we can become that imagined person.
For example, if we notice that we are not as kind, honest, or fair as we would like to be, we can ask the question, “What would it look like if I was…?” We fill in the blank with the virtues we want to embody and the principles we want to live into, as we pretend we are the more ethical self that we imagined. We then begin choosing beliefs and behaviors that help us become the ethical self we created.
The same process can be used to create a more ethical culture. As we imagine a community where all can live and thrive while individual dreams and preferences are honored, we can again identify concrete beliefs and behaviors that nudge our reality toward that imagined future.
For example, we may reluctantly notice that we’re working in and contributing to a toxic culture. We can then imagine what a non-toxic culture would be and notice where our own and others’ beliefs and behaviors have to change. Then, we begin acting as if—pretending—the new culture already exists. For example, rather than fret because we believe someone is being rude, we can respond to them as if they were polite, as we have imagined ourself and them. They will have to respond to our new behavior—and may surprise themselves by choosing new, cordial, behaviors as well.
Strategic thinking is the process by which we think about, assess, view, and create the future for ourselves and others. As we consider what we want to do and have, we also have the opportunity to think about the kind of person we want to become and the kind of community in which we want to live. Often, the strategic process focuses on actions and outcomes, not our ethics—the values we want to prioritize and the behaviors that would follow from that prioritization. Using our imagination to envision all three facets of the strategic plan allows us to engage in values-infused strategic thinking, an exercise that will ensure that we not only are outwardly successful but effectively live into our values. And then we can fake it till we make it!
As the Wells Fargo saga continues to unfold, those of us who teach ethics in business schools are mystified. We know that we discussed fraud and misrepresentation—and their consequences. As those who responded to EthicsGame’s 2016 survey reported, teaching ethics is very important. So what happened?
The New York Times headline tells all: employees needed a paycheck. Under ordinary circumstances, many employees are honest and ethical. However, when the culture promotes unethical behavior and punishes ethical employees by firing them, people begin to do as they see, not as they’re told. And then, when the reporters and regulators start sniffing around, those in leadership claim innocence by pointing to the ethics training and not noticing their behavior.
Over a period of more than five years, Wells Fargo put aggressive sales metrics in place and fired people for failing to meet their numbers. At the same time, they spent thousands of dollars in ethics training telling people not to set up fake accounts and gave them a hotline to report manager’s misconduct. Employees reported the misconduct; nothing happened. Those low level bank managers and tellers who did not meet their numbers continued to be fired. One wonders exactly what the top management of Wells Fargo expected. Had they never studied the relationship between living into ethical values and the actions of leadership?
Our ethics classes tend to focus on helping individuals avoid unethical behavior such as falsifying signatures and participating in fraud. American businesses like to peddle the notion that unethical behavior is the result of one or two bad apples.
However, those who have studied ethical failures know that an unethical culture—unchallenged bad behavior on the part of leadership and a system that rewards unethical action—will trump all the ethics education in the world. People—especially those at the middle and bottom of the economic system—don’t want to risk their paycheck by raising ethical concerns. Economic fear quickly quenches any fervent flames of ethical desire.
As the dust settled for Wells Fargo, the former consumer banking chief, Carrie Tolstedt, who was in charge of the region with the most flagrant abuses, was allowed to retire with a $124.6m payout and praise from the company’s leadership. At the same time, the bank paid out $185m in fines. The regulations put in place after the latest financial crisis were supposed to stop this kind of behavior. But the reality is that without suspending business line licenses and holding the top executives to the same standards as the rank-and-file, change will not happen.
Yet, those of us who teach ethics, whether in a university or an organization, cannot give up the battle. Without us raising the possibility that both leaders and managers in organizations can be ethical and successful, the vision of an ethical organization will not be seen.
We can remind our learners who are or will become entry level employees that they are the ones who will take the fall for unethical behavior. They can then develop the moral courage and voice to overcome their fear of a loss of income. And, those of us who teach executives can help them strategize on systemic approaches for their businesses that will both meet the requirements of Wall Street and result in an ethical organization.
Finally, those of us who are watching can vote with our feet and our voices. As we let businesses know that we will not patronize companies that are unethical and will tell our friends and neighbors to avoid them, executives might pause before allowing unethical systems to fester and thrive. What we cannot allow is for unethical behavior to be unchallenged or tolerated as the status quo.
In the EthicsGame 2016 Survey of Ethics Educators, 80% of the more than 2300 respondents who include an ethics component in their courses said that teaching critical thinking is the most important learning outcome for their classes. Now, one component of critical thinking is determining the facts and assumptions in the dilemma at hand. Another part is determining the ethical issue to be resolved.
But, for those who blend ethics education with teaching critical thinking, the focus becomes teaching moral reasoning: helping students determine standards for ethical behavior and analyzing ethical failure. John Harris, in Be Good: The Possibility of Moral Enhancement, claims that those of us engaged in ethics education have as a primary task teaching our students how to both recognize and avoid moral failure, those times when
compassion, altruism, and basic decency fail or when those who take actions in the world fail to think about or feel for those whose lives will be impacted by their actions.
Over the centuries, people have brought forward many theories to allow them to escape responsibility for their actions. All of them provide some version of determinism, where the limits of individual free will and responsibility for action are showcased in order to deflect blame because somehow acting badly was outside of our control.
But, from Shakespeare reminding listeners in Julius Caesar that
The fault…is not in our stars, But in ourselves, to current day behavioral ethicists who encourage us to mindfully become aware of the biological and social nudges that keep us from being our best self, the message is the same: by knowing ourselves, evaluating the situation, and pausing to consider the best options for action, we are free to act responsibly—or not.
Perhaps the greatest gift that we can give our students is to teach them to pause and reflect before they act. John R. Searle, a preeminent philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, in Seeing Things As They Are stresses that we must first be willing to see the world as clearly and objectively as possible—even if what we see doesn’t match up with our preferred world view. In this day of overwhelming chatter in social media, teaching our learners to thoughtfully explore world views with which they don’t agree is an essential critical thinking skill.
And, then, they can pause—and reflect on their own values and ethical motivations.
Each of us comes into this world with an ethical disposition—a tendency to interact with others in particular ways. That disposition is reinforced and shaped during early childhood, providing the foundations for our instinctive ethical responses, often translated to us by our feelings and ethical intuitions.
However, those feelings are not always right, do not always lead us to doing the best thing, all things considered. The opportunity for unethical action comes when our feelings are tinged with fear or greed, or if our feelings are fed by a sense of self-righteousness or personal superiority. Without acknowledgement of our ethical shadow side, reflection and deliberation, we can make choices that not only fail to live into our own professed values but which also significantly inhibit the ability of those around us who are impacted by our decisions to thrive.
The existential philosophers call us to authentic ethical action, action taken after we see how our tendencies to act have been shaped by biological and cultural factors rather than by our own values and sense of self. Authentic ethical action requires that we see ourselves clearly and then, using the various traditional ethical perspectives, choose the best action in that moment.
Simone de Beauvoir in Ethics of Ambiguity claims that
to will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision. Claiming that freedom—freedom that humans seem to crave more than life itself—requires taking responsibility for personal actions rather than shifting blame by saying
It’s Just Not My Fault!
77% of the respondents to EthicsGame’s Survey also said that teaching students to describe the role of ethics in their professional discipline is a core learning objective. Key to that task is showing the results of both taking courageous action for the good of oneself and the community as a whole and demonstrating what happens when our professional leaders take an expedient path or abuse their personal or professional power.
The ability to pause, look clearly at oneself and the situation, and then choose to live from the best of human values is what all of us who are engaged in ethics education teach. And, 86% of our respondents agree, that teaching moral reasoning is one of the most important tasks that we as educators have.
Thanks for being one of those committed to teaching ethical leadership.
The headline after Villanova beat University of Oklahoma in the Final Four last weekend read—“Moral of Villanova victory: The better team beat the best player”. The game validated the work of neurobiologists who explore the genetic imprints that nudge us toward what we define as ethical behavior.
The research of E. O. Wilson and others has found that, within groups, self-interested individuals beat altruistic individuals but altruistic groups beat groups of selfish people. Thus, the growth of civilization depends on humans determining the boundaries of cooperation and competition—the study of ethics.
The Villanova team provided an excellent example of the interplay between self-interest and altruism. Each of the players was expected to bring their personal best to the game. Each person honed their skills, learned the plays, and was primed for a win. And, the players took turns both guarding Buddy Hield, U of Oklahoma’s star player, and contributing to the win.
While those of us who teach ethics often emphasize being selfless and working for the good of the whole, we forget that each of us needs to be self-interested enough to be skilled at something and to take care of ourselves to the degree we are able. This acceptable self-interest is implied while we are cautioned not to become selfish. Ethics—the actions that count for being a “good” person in community—is ultimately the study of trust. And, what to do with people who violate that trust.
As the human brain became more sophisticated, it allowed humans to assess the intentions of others by listening to how they describe themselves. Do they have principles by which they live? Do they share goals that will contribute to everyone thriving? Do they use power wisely? As they take on roles in the community, are they willing to seek excellence in those roles—as defined by other people in the community?
Each one of those questions has a whole body of literature going back over more than 5,000 years to help us evaluate someone’s answer. If someone says that they are a principled person who values telling the truth, what does that mean? Do we have shared meanings for those principles? If someone is given power, how do we decide whether they will use that power wisely? The study of ethics helps us discover how others have answered those questions and how we want to answer them for ourselves.
Another human development was having a memory good enough to remember how people behaved in the past. Did this person say they valued telling the truth—and then lie to us? Did they say that they respected all people but treat people of different races or religions—people from different tribes—badly? The part of ethical studies that asks us to focus on what kind of a person we want to be and what kinds of groups we want to be with reminds us that others are determining how we “walk our talk.”
We also become skilled in evaluating those we were considering trusting. Can we count on them to live into their stated principles? Will they be good in the roles they take on? Should we let them in the group or exclude them? Every group has non-negotiable behaviors: if you are too selfish and threaten the group as a whole, you will be asked to leave. Or shunned.
Finally, humans became skilled at inventing and inwardly rehearsing different scenarios about the future. Given that each of us is a blend of self-interested actions and altruistic behavior, what do we know both about ourselves and the others in the situation that would help us determine how to proceed? The Broadway play All The Way tells the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson getting the Civil Rights Act through Congress. He had as his goal ending racial discrimination. On the journey, he knew the ethical strengths and weakness of each of the primary stakeholders. Using that information, he both cajoled and threatened people as the project moved forward. An interesting question for each of us as we watch leaders moving their projects ahead is whether the goals and the methods are in fact those that will allow others in the community and the community as a whole to thrive—or not. Are they using their power wisely and well?
The study of ethics is often presented as a path to utopia—where we’ll all behave well and the world will be a wonderful place. While the ideal is important, the study of ethics also has to include the realities of human existence. We all have to learn to balance self-interest and altruism. We all need to evaluate whether we can trust someone else or whether our trust is misplaced. And, as we live and work with others who are engaging the same questions, we may be given the opportunity to play for a team like the 2016 Villanova men’s basketball team, a team that was, in the words of Reid Forgrave, “as egoless as it was scrappy.”
Over the past several months, those of us in academics have had thoughtful—and heated—conversations about trigger warnings. What obligation do faculty members have to warn students that content, in either assignments or classroom discussions, might be upsetting to their learners?
On one side of the conversation, faculty members and students assert that trigger warnings allow those who have experienced some form of trauma in their life to avoid situations that might trigger a major upset. On the other side, people assert that all of us have had upsetting experiences, and we need to develop personal resilience and objectivity to deal with those situations.
This conversation falls squarely into the concerns of virtue ethics (the Reputation Lens). What expectations do members of the community have for each other as we seek excellence in our professional and personal roles? The difficulty is that the definition of excellence seems to be ever evolving.
During the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to make several classroom presentations. As I introduced the opportunity for ethical growth the Reputation Lens presents, I shared my own growth as a faculty member. I started my career in classrooms where I wasn’t expected to give any particular warning about what might upset students. Later, I was expected to provide some version of a trigger warning so that those who might be emotionally impacted by the lessons of the day could either prepare themselves for the content or choose to miss the class.
The difficulty I shared with the students is that, as a faculty member, I have no idea what personal experience might “trigger” an upset response from my students. One of the tools of the trade for academics is presenting ideas in ways that expand the world view of learners and challenge their belief systems. In fact, a pedant might say that every syllabus should contain a trigger warning: all ideas are dangerous!
I was raised in an evangelical family and was taught that Moses himself wrote the first five books of the Bible. I blithely went off to Pacific Lutheran University where in my Intro to Religion course, the professor casually said that four different authors wrote the Pentateuch over a period of hundreds of years. I was stopped short. Was that true? What did that fact mean for my faith?
And, if I believed him, could I still be part of my own faith community? Could I be a teacher in my church if I accepted the scholarship of theologians rather than the authority of my pastor? That prof had no idea that the content of one lecture would raise faith-shattering questions—and the answers would change my whole life.Classes in sociology that deal with systemic injustice against marginalized classes may cause great disquiet for those who have suffered first hand because of the myriad forms of injustice in our communities. Classes in economics that talk about wealth disparity may cause great embarrassment for those who were raised in families who received food stamps or other public aid. Classes in psychology that deal with the dynamics of addiction may cause great discomfort for those who have faced the ravages of drug use and abuse, either personally or in loved ones.
The second is the philosophical approach: using reason to moderate desire and achieve contentment in this life. According to the philosophers, objectively looking at our life conditions and opportunities is the best method to help us achieve contentment. The Greek philosophers, in particular the Stoics and the Skeptics, spent a great deal of time teaching different methods of evaluating the world around us in order to moderate desires. All of the methods involved some version of learning to be content with the cards we were dealt in life. The philosophic approach has some mixed success in that we wind up questioning everything—even ourselves—and so others might consider us a bit odd.
As the students and I engaged in conversation about the ethically responsible way to deal with trigger warnings, I made every effort to listen carefully to the experience and beliefs of the students. I made sure that I respected their experience and reflected back to them their pain, as appropriate. I then invited them to consider the position of the faculty member. What would they recommend? What was the corresponding obligation of the student?
As we moved toward resolution—a more nuanced approach to the problem than the first solutions suggested—we realized that we have mutual responsibility. The faculty member has some responsibility to both talk about the disruptive effect of education and notify the learners of the content of the classes. The learners have some responsibility to communicate privately with the faculty their own areas of sensitivity and to begin to use the content of the classes to get a bit of objective distance. The learners can then, perhaps, use the new knowledge to facilitate their growth in emotional strength and resilience.
The solution we arrived at was found in justice theories—the Relationship Lens—which helps us fashion a roadmap for creating ethical processes and using personal and organizational power responsibly. Through thoughtfully considering both context of the educational enterprise and the respective ethical obligations of the parties, an ethically mature—and satisfying—solution was fashioned. Ethical agility—the ability to use the ethical norms of more than one ethical perspective—saved the day.
Ethics: Bridging Culture and Compliance was the theme for EthicsGame workshops at two recent conferences, the 108th Annual Meeting for the National Association of State Board of Accountancy and Corporate Learning Week 2015. Both workshops explored how to help people recognize an ethical dilemma and then use multiple ethical perspectives to resolve the problem.
The culture of a profession or organization―the unspoken rules about how things are done―forms one end of the bridge. Culture can either support people in bringing their best selves to work or create conditions of fear, anxiety, or apathy that can poison the workplace. As individuals know both their own ethical values and then how to respect and honor the ethical perspectives of others, the organizational culture can be strengthened.
The other end of the bridge, learning how to play within the rules―compliance―helps create a community in which individuals and organizations can thrive. But if a person doesn’t know why the rules are in place―the value priorities that led to the principle―organizational decision making can be stifled. People become fixated on following the letter of the existing law instead of watching for changes on the horizon that may require a different approach.
Ethics―the way that one translates values into action―bridges culture and compliance by helping us consider our core values and commitments and then learn how to choose a wise course of action when those values are in tension. The bridge has five key steps:
Ethics: Bridging Culture and Compliance was the As an ethics educator, you have the opportunity to teach people how to thoughtfully evaluate their values, leverage their ethical strengths, neutralize their ethical weaknesses, and make wise decisions in order to better live a life of meaning and purpose. With thoughtfulness and committed action, the ethics of individuals and organizations can provide the bridge between meaningful compliance and a thriving culture.
On June 13, 2015, Catharyn spoke at TEDx MileHigh. Her talk was entitled “Ethics for People on the Move.” Her message was that none of us have the answers to increasingly complex questions about how to both be effective in our work and live well with others. Thus, studying ethics and developing decision- making skills is relevant for all of us.
Everyone—from undergraduates through executives—can benefit from the knowledge that whether they are exploring their inner landscape, traveling through our wonderful world, or acting as a mover and shaker in their professional life, their ethics – how they translate values into action – will determine how far they go and how satisfied they will be with the journey.
Baird reminded the audience that yesterday’s answers to ethical problems might not be relevant to today’s dilemmas. The skill that has to be learned is how to recognize and resolve emerging ethical dilemmas. The process involves engaging in meaningful conversations with our self and others, paying attention to our motives and the results, and choosing to act with as much wisdom as we have.
As a foundation, learning to use the Four Ethical Lenses™, four different perspectives for exploring and resolving ethical problems, can help focus the questions that point to the best answer. Thus, rather than memorizing pat answers, this integrative approach to ethics equips us to respond to new situations while grounded in timeless ethical principles and goals. Then, as we move through our lives, taking on new roles and finding ourselves in different situations, we will be equipped to make wise ethical decisions on our life’s path.
Click the image at the start of this article to view the TEDx talk. We hope you’ll take time to watch her talk and consider sharing it with your students!
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