EthicsGame Blogs

Ethics Making: Engaging the Conversation


A recent commercial showed three twenty-something roommates cooking dinner together and then sitting down for a meal. Before anyone picked up a fork, the three placed their cell-phones face down in the middle of the table. One of the roomies took a bit longer, and the other two waited patiently—knowing dinner could not start until they had accounted for all the phones.

That small incident is an example of what ethicists call creating micro-social norms. Nested within larger agreements about ethics—our agreements about acceptable behaviors in community—are myriads of tiny understandings among families, friends, and communities about how those larger questions will be resolved in various particular contexts.

For the example at hand, I assume that at some point, the three people sharing the apartment had a conversation about what it meant to live in community. What would be done about meals? About cleaning up? About paying bills? Anyone who has ever lived with another human being can create the list.

We generally do not think of those ongoing conversations as ethics. We don’t name those situations where we have to figure out the unspoken rules—the culture of the organization—as conversations about our value commitments and appropriate behaviors. What exactly is the dress code? How late can I be without being rude? What are the understandings about our cellphones during our time together?

In those moments, a gift we can give to ourselves and others is mindfully engaging in the conversations where people create expectations—the shared understandings about life together.

Shaping expectations

We enter new situations and begin to make sense of the culture by observing what others are doing. Those situations we name as good cultural fits are those where the agreements of the group mirror our personal expectations for behavior. As each of us wanders through this life, we create and modify a set of expectations about our own behavior in relationship with others. We label those behaviors as our ethics. Often the expectations are not explicit. A common saying is “my gut” just told me the behavior was unacceptable.

Our baseline “gut” understanding of acceptable behaviors is developed over a lifetime and reflects our habitual way of responding to various situations. As children we both rationally and emotionally absorb understandings for “how things are done” as a member of a particular family and community. As we grow older and move into new situations, we have to make sense of what we already know intellectually and experientially and what the norms are for the new groups and then resolve any differences. If we are lucky, we might have a formal or informal mentor who can answer questions for us as we learn to move effectively in a new context.

One face of ethics is ethics taking where we identify and adopt explicitly or implicitly the expectations of the community. As we are able, we make small modifications to our behavior to be accepted by a particular group, ensure a fit, and perhaps move into leadership roles within that community.

Another face is called ethics making, participating in conversations to explicitly modify or set expectations for behavior—the micro-social norms for the group. The need for ethics making may arise because of a new situation (the quarantining required during the COVID epidemic is a prime example) or because of upset and frustration that erupts when people don’t have the same understanding of acceptable behaviors.

An important skill set is learning to facilitate and participate in conversations to uncover implicit expectations and then explicitly re-articulate and establish shared behavioral micro-social norms. Because people have different value and ethical commitments, based on their personal expectations and experiences, learning how to share and then harmonize agreements about behaviors is useful. What are our agreements about time? About electronic devices in the space? About talking in a meeting? Is interrupting acceptable or not?

The point of the exercise is not to have everyone agree on exactly the same behavior, but rather to help people understand what range of behaviors will be acceptable in the group. How late can one show up to class and not be disruptive? When is looking at a cell phone acceptable? What are acceptable topics of conversation at a cocktail party? How aggressively can one seek out new business at a networking event? As the parameters of behaviors are set—often roughly—people can determine whether they wish to commit to those agreements and participate in the group—or not.

Committing to agreements

Having members of a group commit to the agreements is essential for creating a healthy community. We all have the power of voting with our feet: if we are not going to keep the agreements, if we can’t live with the expectations, we can leave. If we choose to stay, the expectation is that we will embrace the agreements with minimal prompting.

Now, leaving a community when one is a volunteer or a participating member in a social group is relatively easy. Those who are leaders in non-profits and voluntary organizations are mindful of the need to ensure participants live into the culture—the agreements—of the organization at the same time that the circle of acceptable behavior is drawn broadly enough that people don’t leave unnecessarily. The delicacy of the situation is seen as many leaders in non-profit settings attend seminars on how to create a healthy culture at the same time they don’t alienate those who have volunteered to participate in the shared enterprise. The answer is often emphasizing a shared commitment to the mission of the organization.

Leaving a situation when one is a not a volunteer is a bit more difficult. Students are enrolled in a university, want to graduate, and find themselves in a class where they don’t like the teacher, the subject, or both. People find themselves working for a new team or a new boss and the expectations change but one is not really ready to find a new job.

In a very real sense, the mark of ethical maturity is being willing to live with rules one would not necessarily choose or engaging in thoughtful conversations about changing the expectations. One sign of ethical immaturity is flaunting the agreements—either actively or passively—and daring anyone to do something about it. Another is demanding that everyone live into your understanding of acceptable behaviors—no questions asked!

Being accountable

Problems arise when people find themselves involuntarily in a group and really don’t care whether they are accepted or are seen as a leader. In these situations, behavior may be influenced by guilt (pointing out that the behavior goes against the person’s own core values), shame (pointing out that the behavior goes against the norms of the group), punishment (having some consequence flow for failure to follow the norms), or exclusion (inviting the person to leave the group).

The first layer of behavior modification happens through gossiping—people talking about others who do or don’t meet the group expectations, subtly insinuating those who don’t fit within the community will be the subject of the next get-together. The next layer of modification comes through peer influencing—someone who is respected modelling the behavior while explicitly commending people for living into the group norms. Next comes coaching, where someone in a position of authority counsels the one whose behavior is unacceptable and supports them in changing their behavior. The final step of accountability is inviting the person to leave the group—or actively disfellowshipping them.

We as humans like to be admired and don’t like to have guilt-trips laid on us, or to be shamed, punished, or thrown out of community. And so the tools of accountability can be useful for shaping the culture of a group. However, those engaged in ethics making need to be clear about not giving mixed messages. Many organizations have been tripped up by stating they don’t tolerate harassment and yet promoting or giving financial rewards to those who bring in the bacon even though that cracker-jack sales person is known for treating others badly.

The behaviors seen in an organization are those that are actually tolerated or rewarded, not those necessarily described on a poster or in the ethics code. Thus the need for moral courage.

The first indicator of moral courage is personal accountability, where we keep the shared agreements within the delineated parameters, even if no-one else is watching. The second indicator of moral courage is the willingness to speak up, first privately and then perhaps publicly, when someone hits the edge of acceptable behaviors.

As we become willing to engage conversations about creating an inviting culture, and develop our own moral courage, we are able to become ethical influencers and engage in the ongoing task of ethics making—being an active participant in shaping the ever evolving and fluctuating understandings of micro-social norms, how one should behave in a very particular situation. Our lives are not static. People come in and out of our lives depending on the situation. As we learn to respond with integrity and grace and actively engage in conversations to shape the ever shifting boundaries of our lived experience, we can create communities where everyone can thrive. And that is very satisfying.

Battling Bias


Many books and articles have been written on cognitive bias—an attitude that forms automatically and affects judgments, decisions, and behaviors. The greatest emphasis is on negative biases, which cause people to discriminate against others or act unethically.

Jeffrey To, a researcher in experimental psychology, cautions that training alone will not eradicate undesired bias, despite the simplistic solutions many people offer. He suggests the problem has two interlocking dimensions that are often overlooked in a quest to eliminate discriminatory action. First is mislabeling the type of bias involved (conscious, implicit, or unconscious) and second is the systemic reinforcement for biased action (individual or organizational).

Types of Bias

First, To reminds us that we have conscious bias where we know we are treating groups of people differently, such as treating children differently than adults or people with a medical license differently than those without the same credential. As we set the criteria for conscious bias, we need to consider whether the qualifications are based on objective standards or if the criteria will intentionally or unintentionally put one group or another at a disadvantage.

Next, To describes implicit bias as a habitual way of categorizing people, groups, or actions. We can notice our implicit biases as we watch our own thoughts and actions. We can also change the behaviors that flow from our implicit bias with a commitment to act differently. For example, I might see a young man in a hoodie and immediately conclude he doesn’t belong in my neighborhood. However, if I stop for just a minute and notice I have no information to help judge the person (other than a comfortable sweater), I don’t have to have a negative emotional response or act on the implicit bias.

Unconscious bias is, as the name states, a bias we don’t even know we have. To notes that people often conflate implicit bias and unconscious bias to escape responsibility. However, through education and awareness, we can expose our unconscious biases. We can then discern how these unconscious biases are in fact habitual implicit bias. And finally, we can choose to do something about it—or not. Many times, even after clarifying our unconscious biases, we choose not to change, preferring the habitual way of treating people differently or ignoring unethical behavior for various personal and organizational reasons.

Sources of Bias

As discussed above, the first place we look for bias is within the individual, because we believe individuals are responsible for their actions and for creating ethical cultures. With a stated faith in the essential goodness of people, we also believe people at their core want to be fundamentally fair. So we assume people will work to overcome their negative biases as soon as they discover them.

The second source of bias is systemic bias, those organizational policies and practices that reinforce treating different groups of people differently. Many individuals work in organizations that support their personal individual biases. Thus, many organizations and communities reinforce personal and cultural biases and no one feels compelled to change anything.

The biases can also show up as expectations for people in identified groups behaving in a way that will then justify different treatment. A classic conundrum for women is that if they speak with the voice of authority accepted for men, their colleagues ignore or vilify them. Interestingly, current research shows men are not penalized for speaking more inclusively and gently. If men could be taught to abandon their authoritative voice, the expectation for both men and women would be calm and inclusive conversations—not anger and righteous proclamations.

These biases can also show up as organizations who explicitly or implicitly include only one class of members—either all men or all women, or all one racial group or another. The organizations defend their existence because they were historically excluded from the groups that held the power, so they created their own communities. We now face the question of whether those exclusionary groups should continue to exist or if they have outlived their usefulness.


Unfortunately for all of us, changing habitual thoughts and behaviors requires not only attention but intention. We must not only notice the bias but also imagine how we would behave if didn’t have it—and develop the will to change.

Often, experts offer training as the antidote for bias in the workplace or community based on the belief that lack of awareness is the main problem. The belief is that none of us want to discriminate, thus as we become aware of our habitual biases that lurk below the threshold of awareness, we will change our behavior. However, after awareness, individuals and organizations must commit to changing the practices that reinforce those biases.

Individuals can notice an area of bias and commit to changing their behaviors. This commitment will not be a one-day speed fix, but like any habit will take at least 30 days of conscious awareness and intentional changes of behavior to set a routine in place. Often, people find they must change affinity groups to move away from the reinforcement of peer beliefs and behaviors.

Organizations can also change their implicit biases. By examining where in their particular systems bias occurs, they can change their practices and policies to minimize the bias. For example, if someone in HR notices that the recruiting documents define “successful candidates” as those who have graduated from top universities, thus limiting the opportunity for those who graduate from excellent regional or state programs, they can change the criteria to be more inclusive.

This systemic awareness is going to be essential as organizations continue to develop and use AI in place of human judgment. Given that AI mirrors human behaviors, any bias in the data sets used to populate generative AI will be replicated. Then, in addition to being unconscious within human beings, the bias will be shrouded in complex programming, generated by the computer, that programmers may not even understand. Unless prompted by an observant human, AI cannot gain awareness of its own biases and intentionally change its habits.

So, we begin by paying attention and then imagining ways to not perpetuate unwanted bias. This work requires persistence and moral courage—as does all work to break down the beliefs and behaviors that keep some from flourishing in community.

What is an ethical egg?


I opened the egg carton and noticed a tidy note floating on top of the eggs. The opening line: “Follow the journey of an ethical egg!” What does that mean?

My puzzled response reminded me that the words ethics or ethical have no meaning by themselves. Each person and community has to determine within the context of their various relationships what behaviors are going to count as ethical.

Let’s take that sentence apart from the bottom up. First, ethics is always about behaviors. Individuals, organizations, companies do something—take some action—and that action is then judged as ethical, neutral, or unethical depending on the criteria against which the behavior is judged. Others pass judgment, but the decision maker also assesses their own action to see if their own standards were met. What had to happen for this egg to be judged as “ethical”?

Next, ethics always has a context. Behaviors cannot be judged unless we know where and under what conditions the action took place. As I had this wonderful piece of information and marketing in my egg carton, the ethical egg is to be judged within the context of egg production in the United States.

Then we have the community. Individuals and the various stakeholders—people who interact with those doing the activities—have expectations for what counts as “good” behavior. Within the context of this particular egg producer, being ethical means (a) reducing the impact of egg production on Mother Nature, (b) maintaining the chickens’ pasture to the USDA Organic Standard of land management, (c) building storage that conserves energy, and (d) practices that accentuate the humane treatment of farm animals as the central tenet.

Now, I’m old enough to remember the world of egg production where no one particularly worried about organic farms or humane treatment of farm animals. But the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFP) required the US Department of Agriculture to define national standards for organic products with the final rules being published in 2000. During the ten years between passing the law and final promulgation of the standards, people who cared about organic farming were consulted and influenced those standards. And—we had criteria for what counts for an ethical egg.

The journey of an ethical egg reminds us that what behaviors count in any particular context as ethical or unethical is never settled. Philosophers talk about “thick concepts” such as truth-telling where every community on the planet has some understanding of not lying. However, what specific behaviors count as unethical depend on the context and the community.

Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray have described that process in what they call the Theory of Dyadic Morality1. They assert that the key to determining whether a community determines a behavior is ethical or unethical depends on the amount of harm the behavior causes. In their framework, someone intends to and does something which causes harm to another person (or even the environment). The more harm done, the greater the chance the community will name the behavior as unethical.

Thus, within the context of deciding whether we have an ethical egg, we have chickens who are cooped up in pens and may never go outside in their lives, we have free-range chickens, which may only mean that they have a door open in their coop and may or may not ever go outside, and we have chickens who are truly pasture raised.

How then do we decide as a community what eggs are ethical? The first question is whether we are persuaded that traditional methods of raising chickens and harvesting eggs are harmful to the chickens, the environment, or people who eat the chickens and the eggs. That conversation is held in the court of public opinion, through marketing efforts, research, and opinion pieces on what constitutes ethical raising and selling of chickens. Once individuals are persuaded, they vote with their dollars: Are people willing to pay a bit more for chickens that are raised in a kinder, gentler manner? How much do we value happy chickens and ethical eggs?

This ongoing conversation among individuals and the larger community shapes our understanding of ethics: How are we going to treat each other on this journey we call life? Our ethical standards are not static; they change with new technologies and novel problems. We then have to build the capacity for the conversations. Strategies for building that capacity will be our next topic. Stay tuned!

1 Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray, “The Theory of Dyadic Morality: Reinventing Moral Judgment by Redefining Harm,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 22, no. 1 (2017): 32–70,



I was settling into my seat on the 50-yard line on a perfect football Sunday, ready to enjoy the Broncos' home opener, when I noticed my best friend had put her water bottle in my cup holder. I was juggling chips and a hot dog; she got to the seats first with a Coke and water. She put the cup of Coke into her cup holder and the partially empty water bottle into mine.

Given that I’m in the middle of preparing for my webinar, Values-in-Sync, Strategies for resolving workplace tension (which will be hosted by HRDQ-U on November 17 at 2-3 PM EST) you’d think I wouldn’t get on the pity-party train and ride it to the end. But I did

Beliefs/opinions. Throughout the day, we take in bits of data from the unceasing activity of our world and name the events we witness. As our life is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of events, we make quick decisions about whether what is happening to us is good or bad, right or wrong. Taking on the role of ever-vigilant ethics police, we decide whether the people with whom we interact are treating us with respect and dignity—or not. And then over time we build up a library of incidents which provides an instant reference point for another person or group of people’s reputation, reminding us what we’re supposed to do.

As I sat down to eat my nachos, I decided that my friend was not being thoughtful as she appropriated my cup holder. The low level smolder started. Was I going to mention that she took my cup holder? Was I going to make a bit of a scene because of her rudeness? Or would I just ignore it.

Attitudes. We’ve all been chastened to “not cop an attitude,” but our attitudes often flow unbidden once the event is named. As I looked at the cup holder, I had the opportunity to be upset, angry, or petulant. I could play the martyr with a sigh, and silently suffer under the injustice. I could shrug it off and go on about my business. Our attitudes create energy fields which people can pick up at a subconscious level. Many times we fail to monitor our attitudes because we don’t think that anyone notices—except someone always does.

As the game got underway, having finished the snacks, I pulled out my clear Bronco bag from under the seat and got out my water bottle. My friend looked at me and said, “Oh. I didn’t know you got your own water. I put the rest of my water in your cup holder for you.”

Behaviors. And then we choose to act. Fortunately, I had decided not to say anything about the cup holder but just pull out my water bottle and hold it while watching the game. That behavior triggered the explanation and the resolution of tension.

I must confess I felt a bit silly. I know my friend is a kind person, but she also lives by herself, which sometimes leads to a narrow window of awareness. The low level upset from what I had labelled an unreflective micro-aggression dissolved into a micro-misunderstanding and resolved into an expression of care.

This tiny incident that was cleared up in under twenty minutes is a simple example of the multitudes of tiny upsets that we face during the day. Each of us has a set of values we consider important. And, because we each have a personal moral compass, we judge our own behaviors and those of others according to our definition of what particular actions count for being ethical. If someone does not live into our expectations, we label their actions as micro-aggressions (assuming the behavior was intentional) or micro-misunderstandings (assuming the behavior was unintentional).

The opportunity for ethical growth is to learn to be mindful before reacting rather than responding from our unreflective habits. We begin with ethical awareness, recognizing people have different ethical perspectives. The EthicsGame assessment called the Ethical Lens Inventory™ helps people discover their own ethical identity and begin to understand the ethical perspectives of others.

And then, we develop ethical agility as we learn how to bring our values into sync with the values of others. We can begin by being open to the idea that people might have different beliefs and opinions about what behaviors count for living into their values and are the best expression of themselves. The Values-in-Sync Cards™ help strengthen this skill. Whether a friendship, a volunteer organization, or our workplace, the opportunity is to choose to be mindful and presume that the upset is caused by a micro-misunderstanding.

Finally with ethical maturity we learn to habitually adopt a non-judgmental starting point as we are willing to change our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors to create a context to harmoniously resolve inter-personal conflict. Learning to resolve the values in tension requires awareness and practice. The webinar will provide helpful hints on how to create a non-toxic, supportive culture.

Fortunately, I remembered to follow my own advice. I shifted my beliefs, adjusted my attitude, and settled in to enjoy an opening game blowout. Go Broncos!

Facts, Meaning, and Implications

Bridging the Divide

As I have been talking with people of all ages and political convictions, at the end of the conversation the question invariably gets asked: “What can we do to bridge the divide?” As one committed to teaching people how to navigate the ethics of creativity—how individuals and communities can live well together in a time of great ambiguity—the question deserves a thoughtful response. With an opening caveat that thriving in a time of creative ambiguity begins with an understanding that changing one’s mind is not the kiss of death, I’d like to offer some seemingly simple—but deceptively difficult—strategies that might help.

In addition to being willing to see and name the world around us differently, note that we can only change ourselves: we cannot change the minds, beliefs, or behaviors of anyone else. Now, as we change our reaction to what people say and do, they will have to adjust to what can be called our new step in the dance of life. Remember, we can only change ourselves. And so, four strategies can help us change our mind and thus change our lives: separate facts from cause, from value judgments, from possible solutions—and tone down the rhetoric!

Separating Facts from Cause

My aunt Patricia has a favorite game: whenever you see something, give five different reasons that item or event happened. If you see a stick in a stream, it may have fallen from a tree. A youngster may have thrown it in the water. A beaver may have dropped it as it was building its dam. The wind may have broken the branch. The stick may have been the mast on a toy sailboat and fallen off. Try it—by imagining five causes for everything you see, you’ll get skilled at the first step in bridging the ideological divide—separating facts from the cause.

The exercise of separating facts from cause requires some work. As we enter into conversation, we often have to sift through the words we hear and say to find the fact hidden in the rhetoric. Taking on the discipline of a scientist, practice trying to only see what is there. As the authors of Minds Wide Shut remind us, good judgment comes from “experience sensitively considered and reconsidered” (Morson & Schapiro, 2021, 208).

Separating Facts from Value Judgments

Going back to Aunt Patricia’s game, we often simultaneously add a value judgment to the naming of the fact. The stick in the water fell from a diseased tree. A playful youngster threw it in the brook. A careless beaver dropped it. The devastating wind broke it. An unskilled craftsman made a defective mast. Value judgments come as we label an event “good-bad,” “right-wrong,” “kind-mean,” and so on. But we can train ourselves to separate the value judgments from the facts.

A famous Chinese folk story called “A Blessing in Disguise” traces the reaction of a wise farmer to a series of seemingly catastrophic events. As his neighbors bemoan his bad luck, he says, “Just so—things happen.” Then, the event that was labelled bad with another turn of time becomes good. And so on. Responding to our life events and stories of our conversation partners with, “Just so—things happen,” helps us neutralize the emotional impact of the event. Free from our first emotional response, we can see that any event can have a varieties of value judgments, depending on the perspective of the person recounting the happening. If we can remove our emotions from the mix, we can find a place where we agree on facts—with no value judgments attached to those facts.

Separating Facts from Solutions

Once we have identified facts and separated value judgment from the occurrence, the next step we take is to determine solutions to fix the problem. The stick in the water fell from a diseased tree, so we should cut down the tree. A playful youngster threw it in the water, so we should celebrate the innocence of youth. A careless beaver dropped it, so we need to get rid of the beavers. The devastating wind broke it, so we may have to ask for funds to do a massive clean-up. An unskilled craftsman made a defective mast, clearly someone needs training.

My mother who taught ninth grade English for over thirty years often said that every policy change that affects curriculum change loses 10% of the students—it is just a matter of which students are hurt rather than benefit from the decision. As we advocate for our favorite policy change, we often forget to count the monetary and social costs. We also fail to account for human nature, which could either operate at its best or be tempted/corrupted into being its worst. And we don’t notice who will be hurt and who will be helped by the change. Policy making is very hard work. People have to be willing to compromise—harmonize—the values in tension in order to move from the edges of passionate advocacy to the center of realistic, effective action. Which leads to our last strategy.

Tone down the Rhetoric

The difficulty is that facts themselves are pretty boring. The media on all sides of the political divide make their money based on “clicks,” the number of people reading the articles. The over-the top emotional headlines have been appropriately named “clickbait,” as anxious, adrenaline-fueled readers rush to see what atrocity has been committed by their favorite villain. The practice has been taken up on our social media pages as we post and re-post memes that have a scintilla of fact and are dressed up with thinly veiled innuendos to fan the flames of extremism as we all go into our corners and prepare for righteous battle.

An alternative is to listen to each other with what has been called “generous ears.” Rather than using the differences to fuel the flames of hatred and disdain, we could see where each other is hurting, where we are afraid, where we are at a loss to proceed.

Morson and Schapiro end Minds Wide Shut with a retelling of the Chekhov short story “Enemies” (1887). Chekhov paints a story of two men whose lives intersect: a physician whose only son has just died is asked to help a man whose wife is ill unto death. As the story unfolds, we learn the wife fabricated the illness to get an opportunity to run off with her lover. Each man is now overcome with personal grief and yet neither can find any compassion for the other. Hate overcomes them. What could have been an opportunity for consolation was lost in what Chekhov calls “the egoism of the unhappy.”

Engaging in these four strategies requires both practice as well as a commitment to creating harmony and peace in our lives. Because we may have to give up the comfort of our certain ideological positions (positions often taken out of our general—and sometimes unspecified—unhappiness), the price for being righteous is very high. If we truly want to bridge the ideological divide, we have to begin with building relationships through generous listening, and separating facts from cause, value, and policy solutions. We can then learn to live in a more harmonious middle. I think the result is well worth the effort.

Engaging in these four strategies requires both practice as well as a commitment to creating harmony and peace in our lives. Because we may have to give up the comfort of our certain ideological positions (positions often taken out of our general—and sometimes unspecified—unhappiness), the price for being righteous is very high. If we truly want to bridge the ideological divide, we have to begin with building relationships through generous listening, and separating facts from cause, value, and policy solutions. We can then learn to live in a more harmonious middle. I think the result is well worth the effort.

My Life as a Document on a Shared Drive


The words still haunt me: "Remember, everything you do will ripple through everyone else’s hard drive. It may take some time, but whatever changes you make will impact everyone else on the team." And I then thought—just like all of life.

I was trying to share documents with a team member and finally was frustrated enough to ask for help. Our CTO, with a wry smile, told me I was making it harder than I needed to. Fifteen minutes and a tutorial later, I had unleashed the power of a shared workspace: any changes to documents made on my hard drive also appeared on the documents of anyone who had synced the same document to their hard drive or the cloud.

Many years ago, as I was sorting through upsets in my marriage, I was advised that I had more power than I thought. The counsellor invited me to think of marriage as a dance. And, as either partner changed the steps, the other person had to change in response. The key to personal and interpersonal growth was being willing to change the step—and live with the disquiet while the other person changed in response.

We think of ourselves as solo dancers, or to return to the beginning metaphor, independent documents on our own hard drive of life. But we are not. We live in community and on a planet where all are interconnected. My good mood—or bad mood—impacts everyone I interact with—everyone who accesses the same drive. The words and pictures I put out into common space have a life of their own and I have no idea where those ideas or images will land.

The world of social media is a souped-up shared drive on a global scale. Many bemoan those who throw gasoline on the fire of discontent by the posts and memes indiscriminately reposted in cyberspace. We forget people had grievances before the internet. Men gathered over beer at the local watering hole and women convened over coffee to share the petty resentments of their lives and rail against all “those” out there. After the upsets were defused, people would go home—the trifling concerns resolved.

While the ability to put content into the internet without responsibility for the consequences has been increasing over the past few years, with social distancing and hibernating to avoid COVID-19, those opportunities to complain about life to a small circle of trusted friends who will soothe us are even fewer. Instead, we increasingly spew our delights and outrages into the ether—and forget that those celebrations of life and rantings are rippling through our connected systems.

Ethics is about how we treat ourselves and others. We tend to think of ethics in terms of actions, but our ethics also show up in our words. As we begin this new year, a productive resolution would be to really consider how we live out our beliefs, values, traditions, and behaviors impacts the lives of those around us. Every ethical theory teaches that the path to ethical maturity involves considering others. We are encouraged to ensure that our words, attitudes, and actions are infused with love. Being mindful of what changes we’re making on our hard drive, changes that will ripple throughout our community, requires pausing, reflecting, and then consciously choosing to act from kindness rather than pettiness before we press “save.” That project should keep us all busy for a year. Here’s to 2021!

Felons, Firearms, and Forgiveness: Finding Common Ground

Felons and Firearms

In 2011, Lisa Folajtar pled guilty to tax fraud—a felony. In the ensuing years, she served her sentence and paid her fines. But, with a felony on her record, her Second Amendment right to possess firearms was permanently revoked. Her case to restore her right to own a gun now wends its way through the courts, as Folajtar v. Attorney General of the United States, No. 19-1687 (3d Cir. 2020), and puts a classic conflict in the crosshairs: Should people with felony convictions who have served their sentences be able to own firearms?

Often, the three-second response is those with a felony record should never have the right to own guns. Then, when that pesky critical thinking kicks in, distinctions start arising. People convicted of violent crimes—a serial killer, rapist—could never repay their debt to society enough to justify the risk of giving them access to firearms. But maybe those convicted of non-violent crimes—mail fraud, tax evasion—should be able to get their constitutional rights restored.

My attention was piqued with this story because the facts provide a perfect case study for exploring how people can cross ideological divides by finding common ground. The common ground for the conversation about the ability of individuals to own firearms is found in the community and individual goal of being safe. The Second Amendment right to bear arms was rooted in the desire of the citizens of the new country to be able to ensure safety for themselves and others. The second common ground is the general expectation that people who violate the rules and ethical norms of the community need to be punished for/pay the debt to the community for that violation before being welcomed back.

Identifying the conflicting common grounds reveals the values in tension in the situation. Folajtar argues that her debt is paid, and her rights should therefore be restored given that her crime was not a violent crime. The counterargument is that those who have broken the law, if able to arm themselves, would present a threat to community safety that outweighs the individual safety that someone convicted of a felony might gain from possessing a firearm.

As the EthicsGame team uses the Baird Decision Model™ in our training and simulations, we find identifying the values in tension is the most difficult part of the discernment process. One reason for resistance is that people are so attached to the behaviors they believe are appropriate that stating the values neutrally without any presumed solution to the situation at hand is very, very difficult.

After identifying the tension, the next step is to identify the interest groups involved in the problem—the stakeholders. The task is to determine who might be affected by a decision. The temptation is to assume everyone in a particular interest group will harmonize the values in tension the same way. But, as I was gently reminded, people who own firearms hold differences of opinion about how to balance the tension between the ability to own firearms and the abilities of someone convicted of a felony to fully reengage as a member of the community after completing their sentence.

That understanding leads us to the most difficult part of bridging the divide: being willing to have our mind changed. A core error in ethics is believing a single right answer exists for each ethical dilemma. Once a person finds that right answer, they must never deviate from its truths—the value of consistency. However, as Brian Henning reminds us in The Ethics of Creativity, as we apply abstract value concepts to very concrete situations, our understanding of the best way to achieve harmony within the community while respecting the essential humanity of all involved changes based on the context of the problem.

An unseen barrier to changing our minds is that our beliefs about right actions—our personal moral values—are literally embedded in thoughts and feelings. And so, when we are faced with having to change our minds about facts, the meanings of those facts, or the actions that should flow from our world view, we have a high instinctual resistance to that change. This resistance is often felt viscerally—as our gut response to a situation. And thus, we must be willing to embrace humility and try to look at the world in a different way.

A strategy for the conversation is to explore the reasons for different recommended courses of actions before making up our mind. And so, turning to the conversation back to whether people convicted of non-violent felonies should have their ability to own a gun restored, we discover the conversation hinges on beliefs about to what extent people should have to live with the consequences of the choices they made.

Many in the firearms community believe strongly choices should have consequences. Thus, while they advocate for wide abilities of people to own firearms, an initial assumption is that most members of that stakeholder group would come down on the side of imposing permanent restrictions on those who made the choice to commit a felony. Interestingly, the initial assumption is also that many who desire to restrict the ability to own firearms would come down on the side of letting the person own a firearm within the same restrictions as anyone else, because that interest group gives greater emphasis to forgiveness after the debt has been repaid and the subsequent restoration into full prerogatives of citizenship.

Those in the chattering class who comment on court opinions—the actual opinions, concurrent opinions, and dissents—are already reading the tea leaves on how the members of the current Supreme Court will rule when Folajtar reaches them. Those involved in the case and the interest groups filing amicus briefs also have their perspective on the proper value prioritization.

As I began reading articles from unfamiliar sources to figure out the scope of the conversation and talking with people with strong feelings on both sides of the conversation, my understanding of my own core values came into sharper focus. And then as the EthicsGame community began reaching out to those within our various conversation groups, we found more consensus than we thought: the general emerging opinion was that people who had committed a non-violent crime, served their time, and paid their fines should be able to own firearms, if the rest of the requirements are met. Who knew?

And now the question to you—where do you and your conversation partners come down on this ethical dilemma and why? Engaging the conversation with a willingness to listen and learn is the point—and the fun—of the thought exercise.

Racial Discord: A Teaching Moment

Racial Discord

As the summer wears on, faculty members are scurrying to deal with an uncertain fall and those in organizations are sorting out the fallout from a very disruptive summer. Two dark threads weave their way through the tapestry of our lives. The first is the uncertainty and economic disruptions of COVID-19. The second is coming to terms with the greatest racial unrest our country has experienced in many years.

Perhaps the racial tension is the most disquieting. One difference this year is that Black professionals are coming forward with their stories of their encounters with the police. One story that hit close to home was shared on a professional listserv by a colleague, Robert Thomas, an Associate Professor at the University of Florida. “As the Management department chair at my business school, I was working at school on New Year’s Eve. I went to use the bathroom and somehow startled an older white finance professor

I immediately said ‘hello, how are you?’ thinking that he would surely recognize me after 18 years working in the same school and building. Looking back, I realize that I subconsciously made an effort to put him at ease as though his comfort was my responsibility. This sort of automatic reflex response is part of the multitude of survival mechanisms that black people employ on a regular basis.”

“Nonetheless, about 20 minutes later, I heard two police officers obsequiously question a white junior faculty member down the hall from my office about seeing a ‘suspicious’ black man. However, when they got to me the politeness was gone. They menacingly commanded me to provide my ID. When I questioned why I was treated differently from my white junior colleague they encountered, the officer put his hand on his handcuffs and stated, ‘we’re not going there.’ When he finally confirmed that I had a right to be where I was, instead of apologizing, he gruffly commanded his partner to return my ID without giving me a second glance much less an apology. If I had been forceful about getting an explanation for the differential treatment, I likely would have been roughed up and arrested. Would this happen to white colleagues? Well, I actually observed how much better they treated my white colleague. He belonged; I did not.”

Over the past months many of my professional Black friends have recounted similar stories of being asked to account for being in places where others think they did not belong—stories which they hadn’t previously told because they knew how to handle the situation and didn’t want to be accused of whining. Determining how to respond to the recounting of similar events is difficult.

Most white people can remember a time when they were treated unfairly, and so may not see any difference in the events. My grandchildren who are mixed recount stories of being singled out in Black social gatherings because they presented as White, and so didn’t “belong.” And, having had the experience of being a lone White woman in a gathering of Black professionals, I know the feeling of being singled out simply because I didn’t “belong.”

Responding with suspicion and fear when we see someone who doesn’t “belong” to our community is hardwired into our brains, an evolutionary strategy to ensure safety. Jonathan Haidt’s work on biology and ethics confirms that humans have an automatic reaction when they see someone who looks different. For our conversation, the reality is that 63.4% of people in the U.S. identify as non-Hispanic Whites, and so the chances of those who are White being in a situation where they are the decided minority is slim. Blacks, who comprise 13.5% of the population, find themselves as “other” much more often than Whites. When the data as to the number of Blacks who go to college and are represented in the professions is factored in, the opportunities for raising suspicions if one is a Black professional is even higher.

So, how can those of us who are part of the majority both participate thoughtfully in the conversation and engage with others who are in the minority with understanding to forward the conversation?

First, all of us can practice listening to the experience of our conversation partners without defensiveness or seeing similarities or differences in our own lives. While the basis for empathy is a sense of shared experiences, sometimes expressions of similar experiences come across as dismissive of the other person’s own lived experience.

Next, change sides. Each of us can actively seek out an opportunity to be a minority in some situation. When remembering a time or seeking out the experience of being different, pay attention to our emotions and responses as well as the responses of the others in the community. For many the extreme discomfort of being an “other” is the most surprising result. Then, I invite them to imagine having to live with that discomfort—that sense of being a bit on edge—all the time. And then notice how comfortable being with people like ourselves is—which is why we all seek out opportunities to be able to just be one of the group.

A difficult step is to notice how we go on heightened attention and adrenaline spikes when we notice someone who doesn’t seem to belong, someone who is different, walking down the street or in a social situation. When people say they “don’t see color,” they aren’t aware of their own responses. What they hope to convey is that they don’t treat people differently because of race, but they don’t acknowledge the usually unconscious process of determining that the person they are seeing is “safe”—a process that may take a bit of time.

The final step—and the most difficult—is to explore systemic discrimination. This study involves noticing how avoiding those who are different has intentionally been used to divide, such as the Jim Crow laws and redlining, and unintentionally used to disadvantage, such as the GI Bill which provided tuition for veterans but didn’t take into account the number of universities at the end of WWII which were segregated, so that the opportunities for Black veterans were dramatically diminished.

Dismantling overt and implicit racism begins with paying attention to our own beliefs and behaviors. Those of us responsible for teaching about inclusion or ensuring an open and welcoming work environment can use the above strategies to gently help others pay attention to their own responses and participate in the conversation.

Aspire to be a Butterfly

Recognition, Remorse, Reconciliation

Over the past sixty days, since the call went out to send students home and move to online teaching, the EthicsGame team has listened to many faculty and friends who are concerned that they are being asked to completely change their core identity—from one who teaches in front of a class to one who facilitates online learning. Amidst the consternation, the one constant is the certainty that no one will return to “normal” any time soon.

As many have been thrust into unexpectedly having to rethink education, I’m reminded of the transformation of the butterfly—that marvelous symbol of regeneration and rebirth, an insect coming out of the chrysalis and stretching its multi-hued wings. But, according to the Scientific American, to get to that reborn state, the caterpillar must completely dissolve and reform itself from what are called imaginal discs—cells that hold all the information needed to become a butterfly.

As I listen to seasoned online faculty who have been pressed into service to help those who have never taught online as well as those who find themselves navigating unfamiliar territories, I remember my own learning curve when I was asked to design and teach an online class. The hardest task was imagining how to replicate what I considered the hallmarks of a good faculty member—identifying the imaginal cell clusters of the classroom experience in order to create a whole new way of teaching and learning. Here’s my list of those imaginal discs we formed when we joined the ranks of professors.

Organizer of Information: A primary function of a faculty member is to provide a path through the thicket of information that is our discipline. In addition, we’re expected to point out landmarks along the way, providing structure and meaning for our students. In the past ten years, we’ve seen an explosion of online tools that support that venture. For example, the EthicsGame faculty site (as well as many other learning management systems) allow the faculty to seamlessly link learners to YouTube videos, external articles and references, as well as notes. The primary function of a faculty member’s choosing the content does not go away.

Dispenser of Knowledge: Many faculty have well curated slide decks that provide the connective tissue for students. As we present our lectures, we scan the audience for signs of understanding, pivot if our students appear bored or lost, and adjust on the fly to keep our learners engaged. This function is the hardest to replicate. I had to learn that the imaginal disc was the information itself not my skill as a presenter. Moving myself off of center stage, I could then thoughtfully chunk the information into ten- to fifteen-minute videos, where the information considered essential was matched to the attention span—and availability—of the learners.

Facilitator of Conversations: Another core skill is facilitating an evolving conversation with students as they discover and explore new ideas. Back in the day, before Zoom or any other technology that allowed for synchronistic teaching other than a classroom electronic bulletin board, I learned that students were actually better at engaging with each other than I thought. Even on what we would now call rudimentary chat rooms, I learned that well-framed questions could get a lively conversation going and my sparkling live repartee was not particularly needed to facilitate learning.

Creator of Classroom Experiences: Many faculty use a wide array of tools to generate conversations and practical experiences in the classroom. If we think about what we want that shared experience to be, we find we can use the break-out functions of the various classroom tools or asynchronistic assignments that allow students to meet in groups, do the work together, and then report their findings back to the classroom—a different means of getting to a similar result as before.

Designer of Enriching Assignments: Back in the day, we would have our students read a text or book, write a term paper, and call it a day. However, as we’ve explored ways to give students a more immersive and practical experience, those of us fascinated with technology have designed whole new ways for students to learn about our discipline, engage with the material, and demonstrate their understanding. This is where partners like EthicsGame shine. We’ve created engaging web-based learning experiences that help students apply their knowledge in a practical, measurable way.

Evaluator of Learning: One of the expectations of the new environment is that we cannot rely on the ubiquitous “classroom participation” as a primary driver of evaluation. As we seek new ways to evaluate learners, the method needs to be easy while giving consistent and accurate results. Further, as several faculty members may teach the same classes, this commonality of evaluation is important.

While this season of chaos is no fun, and many are grieving that the classroom experience they have loved and nurtured over their career may never return, we can perhaps use this time to reimagine our classes. Reflecting on the challenge that faculty face over the next months, I was also reminded of Boeing’s complacency. The evaluation process for aircraft put in place by the FAA many decades ago rewarded them for making small adjustments to existing plane models rather than reinventing the plane as it got larger and larger. This failure to reimagine the plane to meet the new challenges was a factor in the Boeing 737 Max crashes. Similarly, a caterpillar cannot become a butterfly through incremental changes—it must be completely remade.

The small silver lining of the pandemic may be an opportunity to reimagine how we present and deliver classroom content. As you consider your role as a faculty member in reconstituting the imaginal discs of the learning experience, remember that the EthicsGame team has experience to support you on your transformational journey. Whether you’re an experienced online faculty or a newcomer to this emerging reality, please feel free to call on us for conversation or ideas about how you can come out of this experience as light and shining as a butterfly.

Recognition, Remorse, Reconciliation

Recognition, Remorse, Reconciliation

Five hundred and five 2x4” tiles with pictures of young women and abstract teal art.

Five hundred and five tiles—one for each person “the perpetrator” violated over a thirty-year period.

The sheer enormity of the sexual assault overwhelmed me as I walked through the door of the Michigan State University Museum to visit their exhibit, “Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak.” Two days after MSU’s former president Lou Anna K. Simon was bound over for trial for lying to police in their investigation of Larry Nassar, I experienced how Dr. Mark Auslander, the Director of the Museum, and his team described not only the trauma experienced by the women but the systemic failure of MSU and the gymnastics community to recognize the behavior. I also got a glimpse of how one sector of the MSU community is embracing the healing power of remorse and reconciliation.

For the past two years, I have been invited to MSU by Dr. Paulette Stenzel, from the Broad College of Business (who will be giving a Teal Talk at the museum this month in conjunction with the exhibit), to talk with their business law students about the organizational failure of MSU as well as the larger gymnastics community to both recognize Nassar's behavior, respond to the complaints, and the stop the assaults.

As I researched the investigation into the Nassar scandal, the pattern of organizational failure as described by Masoud Shadnam and Thomas B. Lawrence in their article “Understanding Widespread Misconduct in Organizations,” came starkly into focus. As I walked the exhibit, every element of moral failure was on display.

  • A small museum case with a jacket and Olympic pins: Breakdown in commitment to ideology. This failure is seen when individuals and organizations either do not communicate the ethical expectations or fail to enforce them. In the world of gymnastics, the rule is that gymnasts aren’t supposed to be given “special favors.” In the world of sexual assault, giving special favors in exchange for silence is known as “grooming” the victim. The museum had a display box with the pins and other memorabilia the perpetrator gave to the women. And, the Director said that stashes of pins and other “goodies” were found in hidey-holes throughout the university as the investigation continued.
  • A timeline of history of gymnastic excellence and the failure to stop the predator: The cost of disclosure is too high for the organization. This failure is seen when the cost of holding individuals accountable for misconduct is perceived as being too high for the system to bear. A persistent story throughout the unravelling of the abuse was that if individuals brought forward the accusations, the opportunity for the gymnasts to succeed would be diminished because they would be blackballed in competition by the other judges and coaches. The fear of retaliation keeps many a would-be whistleblower silent.
  • A wall marked with the heights of the women when the assault began: Work arrangements diminish the effectiveness of surveillance. Many of the women, represented on the wall only by a short pencil line like one makes to show the height of children and their age, were assaulted in their dorm rooms, their hotel rooms, or in other private—unsupervised—conditions. Every training on preventing sexual assault talks about making sure the room is “two deep”: no one is left alone with children. In the case of the perpetrator, even when red flags were raised, supervisors allowed him to continue his so-called therapeutic practice without supervision.
  • A section on institutional failure: The systems designed to curtail abuse are delegitimized. Universities have very detailed processes for assuring claims of sexual assault are reported and investigated. At every turn and at every level, MSU did its best to thwart the process. The section on institutional failure featured an enlarged copy of a published report that seemed to exonerate the perpetrator beside a copy of the full, unredacted report that laid out the offenses.

As MSU’s community grappled with the scope of the evil in its midst, small groups of people began finding tiny opportunities for recognition and remorse. One event involved tying teal ribbons with the name of the victims around the trees on campus. But then the tulle became infested with gypsy moths. The word went out from the arboretum staff that all the ribbons would be taken down.

Over breakfast the day after the announcement, Dr. Auslander lamented that nothing could be done to memorialize the ribbons. As he tells the story, his wife reminded him that he was in charge of the museum. He went into action, thinking only about saving the ribbons.

As Auslander marshalled his resources, he got twelve hours to negotiate a compromise. Thus, began the amazing curation of a historical moment. As the ribbons were taken off one by one, the name of the victim was stated, and then the artifact was put into a plastic bag. The simple act of saving ribbons turned into healing reconciliation.

As the idea for the exhibit began to take shape, the sister survivors and their parents were invited to share their stories and find a place for healing. The 2x4” tiles were created by the sister survivors and their parents in the safe space of a sanctuary. As victims became more comfortable, they found themselves coming back to campus—to the place of the violation—and replacing a tile with their picture.

butterfly memorial

The exhibit ends with the figure of a full-grown woman draped in folds of silken butterflies. On the wall behind the figure, one still sees the shadow of a small, frightened girl. Through recognition, remorse, and reconciliation, the healing process continues.

Auslander and his team have created for each of us a model of how we can repair the tears that shred the fabric of our community. Beginning with a tiny act of moral courage—saving the ribbons—Auslander was able to bring together the extended museum staff as well as many survivors and their family members to help the MSU community recognize the atrocity of the action, provide a place where members of the community could feel remorse and maybe even repent of the collective action, and afford an opportunity for healing.

Each of us has had occasion—although perhaps not on the same scale—to witness organizational failure. May we be inspired from the example they have set to engage in small acts of moral courage to intervene in the face of ethical wrong-doing and then heal ourselves and those around us when damage has been done. Very nicely done, Dr. Auslander. Very nicely done.

Igniting the Imagination

Igniting Imagination

When people think of the importance of imagination, a myriad of creative opportunities come to mind—writing a novel, making a film, designing an engineering breakthrough. Very few of us, however, think about using our imagination to become more ethical. It turns out that in human development—becoming ethically mature—our imagination is our most powerful ally.

Brian P. Hall in his seminal work Values Shift talks about the importance of imaginal skills in both achieving our individual and communal goals and becoming ethically mature. Each person has a preferred ethical lens, a favorite way to interact with the world. And, research has shown that for each ethical lens, the path to maturity requires a mind-shift—changing the way that we look at the world—to reach the next level.

Hall asserts that the hardest shift to make on the journey to ethical maturity, a maturity that will allow us to achieve our goals, is from being guided by external prompts to being internally motivated by a vision of how we are contributing through our work and how we can get along with others on the journey. He describes the shift as changing our world view from “the world is a problem with which I must cope,” to “the world is a creative project in which I want to participate.” A question that can help get past the fear of change is one that prompts that imagination: what would it look like if…?

The first step in making that shift is the commitment to see the world differently. Jane Loevenger in Ego Development describes the change as from seeking to reach success as defined by others to living by our own self-evaluated standards and measuring our progress against our chosen long-term goals. This path of ethical maturity parallels the goals of the Results Lens, classic consequentialism, where the sign of ethical maturity is moderating desires in order to acquire that which is important, not just stuff.

Martha Nussbaum, a well-known consequentialist, describes this step as building the capacity for change. And, imagination is the most effective tool: What would it look like if I saw myself able to be kind of person that I respected—that I want to become? And then the follow-up question is: What changes in both self-concept and in behaviors would be required to live into that vision? What goals would I pursue if I didn’t see myself limited by the vision others have of my success? And then: What would it take to begin to make that goal a reality?

Once the commitment toward a goal has been made, two related shifts are required. One involves developing one’s own self and the other involves learning to play well with others.

The best known path for those seeking ethical maturity through the path of self-development is that of Lawrence Kohlberg who maps the journey for those who resonate with what we call the Responsibilities Lens, classic deontology. People in this lens determine what is ethical by using their reason: individuals using their reason determine the principles by which they will live.

For Kohlberg, however, the shift to ethical maturity requires setting the destination as living into our principles while caring for others. The required mental shift is from following the rules without considering the overall system—which often results in people playing on the edges of the law as well—to fulfilling our responsibilities while upholding the social order and maintaining the welfare of the society. In this mental shift, we move from a preoccupation with self to an acceptance of our place in the community while committing to working with others to build a thriving community for all.

The path for learning to play well with others is not as well known in the academic ethical maturity literature, although in the spiritual and psychological literature the path is well trod. Norma Haan is the ethicist who mapped the path for the Reputation Lens, classic virtues theory, where the task is for members of the community to define what counts for ethical excellence in a given role. As we develop the capacity for ethical excellence and courage, the mental shift involves moving from compromising to include others that are “good” and excluding those who are “bad” to committing to the shared agreements and rules of the community, because all people can fall from grace.

This shift results in changing the focus from determining who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “acceptable” and who is “not,” to accepting that people have different world views, different goals they are pursing, and at different levels of ethical maturity. For this shift imagination is again key as we develop our personal voice to stand for particular values and expect to be treated with respect, the antidote for enmeshment, at the same time that we do not automatically exclude others from community who do not share those values.

While each of us has a preference for a particular ethical perspective and thus find the path to ethical maturity from that perspective easier, in order to move into truly living from a sense of personal purpose as we work with others to build a thriving community, we have to make the mental shift required by the final ethical perspective, the Relationship Lens, classic justice theories of ethics. For this perspective, members of the community determine both what is procedurally required to achieve fundamental fairness as well how the resources of the community should be equitably allocated.

Janet Hagberg has mapped this path in her book Real Power. The goal for this movement is the proper use of personal and organizational power as we learn to consider and care for those with no power. The mental shift that is required is moving from getting affirmation of worth and prestige from symbols of power to getting power by being competent, reflective, and strong. To make this shift we have to reject the allure of the resting point of the virtue ethics perspective where we accumulate respect in the community—but that respect feeds the personal ego—and the resting point of the duties perspective where we becomes successful in our chosen career—but that success feeds on itself in the relentless acquisition of more accolades.

The first step in changing world view is to imagine a different reality. This reality can be created as we see how others whom we admire live or as we realize that to reach our next goals we will have to change. For all of us change is difficult. To ease the difficulty of change, we can use our imagination and try on a new world view before we commit to doing the work to actually live into that new vision of how to relate to ourselves and others. And we then circle back to the question posed at the beginning of this conversation: what would it look like if…and we fill in the blank with our new vision for what might be possible.

Go ahead and try it. You might find that you like what you see from a new vantage point.

Acountability for Actions Long Past

Actions long past

With judicial nominee Neomi Rao walking back comments she made in college about date rape and a continuing conflagration over Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s pictures in his yearbook of a man in blackface accompanied by someone in a KKK robe, the conversation about how long someone should be held accountable for juvenile actions has roiled again to the surface of both media and personal conversations. We have no problem holding people accountable for actions taken in the here and now. A more troublesome question is when—if ever—people should no longer be held accountable for actions taken in the distant past.

At the core of the question is whether the person has changed enough in the intervening years to no longer be the same person and thus forgiven for prior acts. Andrew Khoury, a philosopher at Arizona State University, offers a three-step inquiry to determine whether or not a person should be held accountable for prior illegal or unethical acts—remorse, acts of restorative justice, and changed behavior.

First, Khoury describes the two schools of thought about forgiveness. One approach states that one can never be absolved from prior behavior because one is the same biological person, having continuity of experience and memory. The second approach holds that absolution is possible, depending on whether one is the same psychological person, either holding the same beliefs and behaviors of the past or demonstrating a pattern of increasing ethical maturity with changed beliefs that also result in changed behavior. Khoury claims that only looking at whether the person inhabits the same body rather than whether their world-view has changed is limiting and gives us no space for forgiveness.

If we are willing to adopt the changed psychological approach to forgiveness, Khoury reminds us that evidence of change is often slow. So, we have to go back in time to determine who the person was at the time of the offending act and then compare that picture with who the person has become. Khoury also is aware of apologies of convenience, where one is sorry for having gotten caught rather than actually sorry for the offending behavior.

To address both concerns, he recommends a three-step process to determine whether a person should still be held accountable for previous misconduct. And, as Lisa Leopold reminds us, not all apologies are equal—often the one apologizing missess some of the essential elements of a thoughtful and heartfelt apology.

Remorse. A staple in judicial sentencings, a person should be able first to describe the behavior that was inappropriate, acknowledge having participated in that behavior, and then affirm that the actions were either unethical or illegal. The essential step after describing the behavior, is expressing remorse for the action with a description of how one should behave or how they actually changed after the event. Part of the difficulty with the dithering of Governor Northam is that we really can’t tell when he decided that blackface and dressing like the KKK was inappropriate. Because the picture only came to light some 30 years after the event, the moment of changed belief is hard to identify.

Acts of Restorative Justice. These actions can be as easy—or difficult—as an apology. An African-American judge tells of his experience of getting sideways with a person driving just outside of the courthouse. The white man went off, angrily spouting racial epithets with additional criminal behavior during his rousing temper tantrum. Stung by the outburst, the judge also took action: he took a picture of the car license, filed a report, and the man was duly charged. As part of the sentencing agreement, the person asked to apologize to the judge. The request was granted: the apology was given in full court with the judge in his robe and all the attorneys and other people waiting their turn for justice in attendance. If that apology leads to an understanding that racial epithets are always inappropriate coupled with work on anger management, then the person meets the third criteria for absolution for his inappropriate and intemperate outburst, changed behavior.

Changed Behavior. Khoury asserts that the most reliable evidence to support the claim that one is not the same person that committed the unethical/illegal act is consistent changed behavior. Brandon Black, the author of Ego Free Leadership: Ending the Unconscious Habits that Hijack Your Business, describes layers of change that happened over many years of noticing undesired behaviors, identifying the core beliefs that led to those behaviors, and then changing both his beliefs and behaviors. And, Black notes that the change is like a ship changing course—the change seems imperceptible but at some point, one notices that the boat is heading a different direction.

Khoury’s three steps to determine accountability match well with the strategies of those of us who work in the world of transformational leadership and coaching for ethical maturity. First, we begin with the assumption that the process of growth doesn’t stop but continues for a lifetime. Personal growth progresses as we first become aware of both what we believe about our self and the others with whom we work and play. From that awareness, as appropriate, we can choose both new beliefs and new behaviors in order to continually grow and become a better version of ourselves.

As we evaluate whether someone is entitled to a more responsible position, whether we should place our trust in their leadership, or even if someone should be let out of prison, we have a record of their beliefs through what they have said as well as their behavior. We, however, must be willing to acknowledge and trust the change and not look only on the prior actions and the injury suffered as a result. For example, as those who work toward paroling people sentenced as teens will attest, one of the greatest barriers to finding someone is ready for parole is dealing with the unhealed wounds of those affected by the teenage behavior.

Whether Northam will continue as governor or Rao will be confirmed as a judge will depend on whether we as citizens actively engage the conversation about whether these two people have actually changed or whether we cling to feeling righteous about past injuries because of the old but newly revealed behavior. Clinging to hurt and feeling righteous may satisfy in the short-run, but in our hearts we all know that we have held beliefs and engaged in behaviors we may not want brought to the light. And those of us who have chosen a path of continued awareness and improvement, know how hard it is to become a better version of ourselves. That humility paves the way for forgiveness and reconciliation. And, perhaps, may be one of the keys to ending the divides tearing our country apart. As one man who was paroled after some 20 years after receiving a life sentence as a teen said, the catalyst for his change was his grandmother’s reminder that that every person is serving a life sentence. What matters is how we choose to use our time.

Everybody Teaches Ethics

Everybody teaches ethics

We often hear from faculty members who assert that they don’t have to think about teaching ethics because their subject doesn’t include conversations about values. However, like it or not, every faculty member teaches ethics—either intentionally or unintentionally. All educators talk about the ethical potholes of their discipline, model a (hopefully) civil and respectful environment in their classroom, and advise students who come to them for wisdom and guidance.

The most basic ethics conversation involves warning students of the ethical potholes of our discipline. Often, we will showcase exemplars who have made unethical decisions because of a lack of self-awareness and hubris.

These cautionary tales alert students to the types of problems that will land them in legal trouble. During these conversations, we can also discuss the ethical issues surrounding emerging technologies and research. Whether we teach biology and explore the ethics of gene editing or IT where questions of how to handle big data arise, all of us can use our experience and expertise to flash warning lights for students.

Many of us shy away from these conversations because we don’t feel qualified to teach ethics. Without training in behavioral ethics and psychology, we may not feel comfortable probing into the reasons people strayed into unethical behavior. However, all of us have considered how greed, blind loyalty, a desire for power, or just not paying attention can get someone on the wrong side of the law. And, often giving a concrete example of a universal problem is enough to make an impression on our students.

The second type of ethics conversation is inherent in the structure of our classrooms. With a modicum of awareness, we can all learn how to facilitate conversations with people with different ethical perspectives and disparate value priorities. We begin by modelling respect for students who hold ideas and express positions with which we don’t agree. Our task is to help them think carefully and articulate their positions clearly, not to have them agree with us.

My college-aged grandchildren talk about considering the risk of writing a paper with which their faculty will not agree and then perhaps getting a lower grade than if they had agreed with the biases of their prof. They debate about when to bring forward to a dean the behavior of a faculty member who has disrespected or silenced members of the class—always, by the way, after they are certain to never encounter that teacher again. Each of us can examine our own practices to ensure that we are not one of those teachers who is roasted over Christmas dinner.

A recent Harvard study found that 51% of students feel comfortable sharing political opinions at their college “without fear of censorship or negative repercussions.” However, 8% of those who identified as Democrat, 14% of those who identified as Independent, and 21% of those who identified as Republican said that they were not comfortable sharing their ideas. The tension for each of us is engaging in interesting conversations that will gently widen the viewpoint of both conservatives and liberals without making anyone feel silenced. With thoughtfulness and practice—and a willingness to learn from our students—we can create an open and inviting space for true learning.

Finally, all of us have students who come to us for wisdom and guidance. In these conversations, students often struggle with how to balance a desire for accomplishment with treating people with whom they work and study with respect and care. They are getting early glimpses of a common ethical problem in organizations where people are focused on their own career and are rewarded even if they don’t consider the impact of their behaviors on others. Charges of harassment or bullying, or a concern about a toxic culture, often result from this type of ethical blindness and the leadership’s failure to address the goal of civility. Students can begin to learn strategies for not making that ethical error and dealing with those who are not kind or civil.

In these conversations, we can explore with our students how to have the moral courage to make those big decisions that can shape or derail a career. Because those choices are not obvious, we may find ourselves sharing our own stories of making a tough decision that impacted our career. In a recent blog, Matt Reed talks about how his decision to be an involved dad and to write frankly about issues in higher education in his blog led to a glass ceiling in his own career. Those moments of vulnerability not only help students see us as real people, but they can begin to believe that they can make the hard decisions when needed.

None of us needs a degree in philosophy to help our students learn be an effective and ethical person in a complex, rapidly changing environment. We can model how to harmonize personal values and organizational values as we teach and do our research. The only question is whether those lessons will be taught from a space of mindfulness, where the learning can be highlighted, or from a position of oblivion. A beginning step toward mindfulness is to acknowledge that everyone does in fact teach ethics and to then search for ways to more thoughtfully engage the conversation about ethics. Your students will thank you.

…With a Dollop of Humility

A dollop of humility

Over the past month, I’ve been privileged to visit more than five universities and speak with several hundred students and faculty about ethics and ethics education. No matter the size of the group or the announced topic, at some point the question was asked: What did you think about the hearing for Judge—now Justice—Kavanaugh? Did he do it (it doesn’t matter)? Should we really be held responsible for things we did 30 years ago (maybe)?

What disappointed me as the hearing unfolded was that Justice Kavanaugh missed an opportunity to demonstrate moral courage and ethical maturity. The question for me was not whether the event described by Dr. Ford actually happened—the Senate hearing was not a court of law. The question was about Justice Kavanaugh’s character and judicial temperament. As he became defensive and combative, he failed the test.

In my perfect world, he would have said something like this: "I don’t remember the event Dr. Ford described, and I don’t remember ever engaging in that kind of behavior. However, I do know that in high school and college, I abused alcohol and was cavalier in my treatment of women. Since then, I have dealt with residual substance abuse issues and have changed the way that I treat women and others without voice or power. If I hurt anyone by my behavior in the past, I am really sorry. I have worked—and promise to continue to work--diligently so that doesn’t happen again."

Moral courage includes reflecting on our behavior and admitting when we are wrong. That reflection provides a space for humility. Ethical maturity includes noticing that over the course of a lifetime people change. And that acknowledgement gives all of us the space for forgiveness and grace.

So, should we hold people accountable for what they do in college? Maybe. In many situations, we already hold people accountable for their actions in their youth. For example, people who were incarcerated for a drug-related offense or were subject to an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense, find their eligibility for financial aid for college limited, even after release. Those found guilty for financial misconduct or other crimes and infractions find their opportunities for employment and ability to participate in civic life limited—sometimes for a lifetime.

And, as the #MeToo Movement has shown, men in power can be held accountable for acts of sexual harassment and violence that took place decades ago. At this writing, more than 200 executives have lost their positions because of accusations of sexual misconduct arising over the past year or so, even if those accusations did not result in convictions. Actions do have consequences.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of true leaders is humility. Each of us has a past—actions and behaviors that we wish we could expunge from our record but are part of our own story. We can, however, acknowledge that our ethical self includes both the ability to act from our core values as well as from our ethical blind spots. We can notice that often ambition, fear, or anger causes us to stumble. As we reflect on our past, we can ask forgiveness of those we have hurt, forgive ourselves for those actions, and resolve to do better.

Then as we seek forgiveness, members of the community can show grace. In the last election, Florida changed the law prohibiting felons from ever voting again to allowing them the franchise. Floridians embraced forgiveness and grace by giving people a second chance at being good citizens. Citizens of many states are allowing their officials to forgive and expunge the records of those convicted of marijuana possession or other minor drug crimes in order to open up opportunities for employment.

Unfortunately, Justice Kavanaugh did not exhibit humility thus precluding grace. Instead, he reminded me of those times as a lawyer when I appeared in front of judges who did not acknowledge their own power and behaved like him. I can tell you that those experiences are not fun. The high value we place on judicial demeanor is well-placed. If those on the bench do not have the humility to acknowledge that they might be in the same situations as those who appear in front of them, if they are unable to evaluate the circumstances with compassion, they run the risk of abusing their power.

Now, many have attested that Justice Kavanaugh never behaved on the bench as he did in the Senate hearing. That is good news. However, his behavior in that moment when he was under pressure showed a lack of humility and ethical maturity.

Those of us watching can use Kavanaugh’s misstep as an opportunity to reflect on those places where we fail to show humility and restraint. We can take a small act of moral courage and admit to ourselves and others as appropriate where we fell short of the mark. And, we can seek to develop ethical maturity by continuing to set the trajectory of our life toward living into values of principled living and justice instead of self-serving actions and self-justifying excuses. The cumulative effect of those small acts of moral courage may be the creation of a more humane community for all.

Mindfulness and Self-Control

Mindfulness and self-control

I’ve spent the past week cruising the upper Rhine in Germany. At one of the stops, we not only had the chance to explore a Museum of Medieval Torture but also visit the dungeon of a local castle with its sampling of the tools used to encourage ethical behavior. In addition to the pillories (wooden structures designed to embarrass people who were caught violating the laws and norms of the community by putting them on display in the city square with their heads and wrists in constraints), other specific punishments—primarily iron masks—were used to punish people for particular ethical violations: cheating, lying, stealing, gossiping, and so on.

While those of us who teach ethics sometimes fuss over what kind of behaviors are actually unethical, we would be wise to remember that every community in recorded history sets thresholds for ethical behavior for their members, and that the categories of unethical behavior are remarkably similar. While we recoil at the medieval methods of ethical nudging, we should acknowledge that the fear of shaming is alive and well. We have just replaced a fear of being put in the stocks with the “newspaper test”—would we be willing to have this action splashed across the front page of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times?

Behavioral ethicists, those who study how our biological and social programming informs our ethical sensibilities, are giving scientific shape to those early medieval intuitions: without constraints imposed either through our own self-discipline or fear of humiliation, we will be tempted to behave in ways that do not contribute to a healthy community. I remember being struck by Jon Haidt’s assertion in The Righteous Mind (2012) that as communities grew and people could not keep track of their neighbors, the notion of an all-seeing God was brought forward to make sure that people knew they were being watched, even when far from home.

To reinforce that idea of being watched, every culture has some method for teaching its children expected behaviors. Whether through the European story of Saint Nicholas, who as the popular Christmas song reminds us “knows if you’ve been bad or good,” or through cautionary tales of witches and goblins who would find naughty children, we have our ethical intuitions shaped by the expectations of our communities. Once we move past the idea of Santa Claus, the next task is to be shaped by personal and societal expectations for adults.

A primary function of ethics education at the collegiate and corporate level is to make learners aware of the set of behaviors that will lead to public shame and expulsion from the professional community. We begin by noticing where ethics touch compliance: if one violates the particular norms as outlined in professional codes of ethics and the law, one will be disciplined in some way—from prosecution to public shaming. We then move into the ethics of leadership, being expected to exceed the ethical minimum set by law and regulation.

The perennial problem of being ethical is learning to exercise self-control. With a propensity to quick thinking and reflexive action, most of us will inadvertently lean toward gratifying our desires rather than moderating our behavior to allow us to thrive while meeting the expectations of the community. As Eugene Soltes found in his interviews with white-collar criminals, the universal theme was that people framed their decisions as business decisions rather than ethics, and thus didn’t consider that their actions would actually hurt anyone. So, we learn that a critical step toward becoming an ethical adult is learning to exercise self-control, stopping long enough to remember not to indulge our desires and passions.

Mindfulness—that practice of stopping, becoming aware of our feelings and then our thoughts—is essential for self-control. The key for learning to pay attention to our thoughts and desires is to develop strategies to move from what Daniel Ariely calls Type 1 thinking, which is fast and reflexive to Type 2 thinking, which is slow and reflective. Practices such as thoughtful reflection and mindful breathing help us get in touch with our bodies, reduce adrenaline surges, and prepare ourselves for the next practice: evaluation of options for action.

Those of us who have tried to tease out when a “business” decision becomes an “ethical” dilemma know that the line is hard to draw. To avoid the ethical blind spot of mis-framing an issue and inadvertently violating personal or community ethical standards, many suggest that the antidote is to slow down and engage in a practice of ethical discernment for every major decision—no matter whether labelled a business decision or an ethical decision. As we are reminded, the engineers who gave the final OK to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger reframed the problem from an ethical dilemma to a management decision—and then made a choice with disastrous results.

The implication is that those who teach ethics should include two facets to their curriculum. The first is to teach what behaviors are expected in the profession. That skill includes strategies for resolution of ethical dilemmas, including situations where people have different notions of appropriate behavior. The second is to teach strategies of self-control, practices that students can use to provide a check on their own ethical blind spots that nudge toward self-serving behavior.

The strategies may be as old as the examen, a method of self-reflection taught by St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit Order, or as new as various body/mind techniques taught to center oneself before a decision. Whatever the method, including these strategies in our classes better equips our learners to discover their own preferred method of self-control, a discipline that might just save a career.

The Ethics Blues

Ethics Blues

Many of us anxiously awaited the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. ___ (2018) decision, crossing our fingers that our particular position would be validated. Surely the Supreme Court would see that the principle of freedom of religion was more important than the principle of accommodation for all—or perhaps tilt the balance the other way. But all were disappointed. No one scored a win except the arena of public discourse. The Justices reminded us that as we balance these two core values in our public policy actions, both sides must be respected and given a thoughtful voice.

But as recent passions around immigration issues and what to do with children brought across the border have erupted in the mainstream media and our own worlds of social media, it became clear that living into the vision of the Supreme Court for respectful discourse is very difficult. And, like many, I began singing the ethics blues.

The conundrum is not new. Even St. Paul sang the blues: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good." (Romans 17:15-16, NIV)

If we struggle to live into the vision of civility laid down by the Supreme Court with our friends and neighbors—and are also expected to teach the behaviors and model them in the classroom—how do we avoid slipping into either monologues or avoiding all controversy? If the law is that we are to respect both sides of a policy dilemma and, after respectful conversation, we are still supposed to act, how do we avoid being disrespectful as we discern what action to take?

Here, philosophy becomes a wise teacher. The philosophers have given us a series of strategies for avoiding the pitfalls of careless thinking and mean-spirited conversation. Two temptations that seep through our social media and stoke the fires of anger and fear are illustrative.

  • Glittering generalities. The pundits say we live in a post-fact world because we seem to not be able to agree on even the most basic of realities. One problem is that we are tempted to cherry-pick our facts, finding data points that seem to support our preferred position and ignoring those that don’t. However, facts are neutral: they have no inherent meaning. To bolster our own world view and feel righteous, we spout simple solutions as we paint our pictures with a very broad brush. And, in the process, we conflate the meaning and implications of the data point with the data point itself—short-circuiting all conversations.
  • Ad hominem arguments. When facts aren't on our side, we might attack the person rather than their ideas or behaviors. And once we attack a person, the fight becomes—well, personal. Respecting the person even though we don’t agree with their beliefs or behaviors is very hard. However, without a threshold of respect, we’ll never be able to bridge the divide that separates us from each other.

Even as I review the lists found in every primer on critical thinking, I notice what delight I get from breaking the rules. As the passions flame higher, rather than acknowledging the values on the other side and the frustration of trying to solve a wicked problem—one where the problem is multifaceted, and we don’t know which strategies will actually resolve the problem—careless thinking, name calling, and mean-spirited conversation seem much easier. And, as I rehearse my comments with those who think like me and reinforce my beliefs and passions, the fire burns brighter. Maybe I need to step back and with some humility acknowledge that I don’t have all the facts and am not always right.

Ethics is the place where we decide what beliefs and behaviors will help us live productively with others. As we fashion our individual and communal understandings of ethics, we compete and cooperate with others from many different walks of life and work together to create communities where all are respected, and systems are put in place for all to have a fair opportunity to thrive.

Those of us who include an ethics component in our classes know that modeling the respect and humility envisioned by the Justices is difficult. Creating a place where we can safely examine and calibrate the knowledge and beliefs of all members of the community is hard work. To create an engaging classroom, we each have to acknowledge our own tendencies to stoke the flame of passions rather than exercise restraint with thoughtful dialogue. So, we do the hard work of knowing ourselves, watching our own behaviors, and continuing to hone our skills.

And, at the end of a difficult class period where passions flared and feelings were hurt, we come home and sing those ethics blues. But, all is not lost. Those of us who love the blues note that in the end the songs are hopeful: relationships are mended, lost love is found, and people are resilient. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and remind ourselves that tomorrow is another day. As we commit ourselves to being civil and practice respecting people, we become better at building those bridges. And, little by little, we notice that stoking the fires of discord is no longer satisfying.

Anger and fear—the source of the vitriol—turn out to be thin gruel. Martha Nussbaum in The Monarchy of Fear (2018) provides an antidote as she encourages us to engage in the politics of hope: loving imaginative vision and a spirit of deliberation and rational critique that leads to the action and commitment required to produce anything that is good or useful. Nussbaum reminds us that hope is the opposite of fear, and that by embracing hope we can create, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “a world where men and women can live together.” Even when we disagree.

Implicit Bias and Ethical Decision Making

Implicit Bias and Ethical Decision Making

It all started innocently enough with a student inquiry about one of our simulations. The dilemma asked the learner to identify the most ethical option if a long-term, valued employee gets angry and throws a fire extinguisher at another employee while off his meds for being bipolar. The student made a good case for the most ethical option being termination, rather than sending him home for two weeks to get his life back in order and then giving him another chance—the option determined most ethical by the EthicsGame writing team.

As is the custom, when EthicsGame gets a question from a student, I poll the leadership team (conveniently, we all look at the world through a different ethical lens). One of us with a long history as a HR executive wanted to protect the other employees and the company and so would terminate the employee. One of us with a long history in the corporate world—who also works with the police—advocated for calling the police. I was taken aback. That would be the last action I would take.

I then got gently schooled in how, with a decline in mental health services, police departments have resources available both to make sure that the person doesn’t hurt themselves or others and also gets the help they need. And, the employee would be terminated.

As I began to sort through the different approaches, I noted that all of us were in agreement about the facts as presented. The importance of starting with an agreement about facts cannot be overstated. Many of us become committed to the facts as we want them to be, instead of as they are, diminishing any hope of working together, as Michal Blake details in a provocative article entitled “Why bullshit hurts democracy more than lies.”

The problem is that none of us ever has all the facts we want before we have to make a decision, especially if we are responding to an emerging situation. Then the aha: each of us filled in missing details and, in the moment, gave the benefit of the doubt to either the employee or the manager based on our own experience and ethical perspective—based on our implicit biases and preferred value priorities. Faced with incomplete or imperfect information, we act based on our previous experience and preferred world view.

Most of us do not want to believe that we have implicit biases, which the Kirwan Institute (2015) defines as “the implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious [that] cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.” However, a fact of life is that none of us can get rid of biases (nor would that eradication of learned behaviors and information about life be particularly useful, as we see the plight of those with dementia who no longer have access to memories).

Our biases are learned as we make sense of our world in childhood and either reinforced or rebutted as we evaluate our lived experience and learn more about others and ourselves. While these biases can help us sort out our value priorities, they also can hinder us from respecting people and making the best decision possible. An antidote to inappropriate action is to become aware of our own biases, test them to see if they make sense (noticing when a situation has become unsafe and getting out of compromising situations are still useful skills), and work to change the biases as appropriate (which is a long-term process). Most importantly, we can learn to notice when our biases come into play, and then test our proposed action against a different set of biases, a different framing of the experience.

I had a chance to test the theory about identifying implicit bias by exploring who got the benefit of the doubt in a conversation about the recent Starbucks incident where two African-American men were arrested for loitering while they said they were waiting for a colleague. One person I spoke with, who had a long history of living among and working with the homeless, defended the barista who made the call because the men looked like they were homeless—and loitering in the public space. One person, a DA, defended the police because their ability to exercise discretion has been greatly reduced in order to reduce arbitrary actions. One person, active in civil rights issues, was outraged because of the perceived targeting of the men. Each person filled in details and gave the benefit of the doubt to a different stakeholder in that situation.

I then tried to look at the situation from the vantage point of my conversation partners and realized how hard it was to shift my gaze from my preferred world view. To even try, I had to use my imagination and envision myself as those other people. It turns out that our imagination and learning tools, such as simulations, can prepare us for that sliver of time where a choice has to be made. As we become aware of our own implicit biases and rehearse what we might do in a particular situation, we begin developing strategies to master the game of life—to live effectively and ethically with other people.

Building Capability for Ethical Action

Building capability for Ethical Action

As the anger and outrage for the latest school shooting has begun to subside into a search for strategies to reduce the number of deaths caused by people using firearms, the articulate courage of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School provides a flicker of inspiration in the shadows of grief.

Turns out that those students had been equipped to have a voice through the debate training program that is part of Broward County’s curriculum. Beginning in the third grade, students were taught how to evaluate evidence, develop a position, and articulate their ideas. Many probably had no idea that those skills would be used to launch a national movement to reconsider our collective response to gun violence.

Martha C. Nussbaum’s book, Creating Capabilities, provides a powerful challenge to educators about our responsibility to equip our learners with a voice and a sense of personal agency as they prepare to engage with the world. Nussbaum argues that creating capabilities includes helping individuals develop the vision and skills required for a good life as well as equipping them to work toward creating a political, social, and economic environment that gives people meaningful choice.

Faculty often complain that engaging students in conversations designed to build those personal and communal capabilities is hard. Yes, yes, it is. But by thoughtfully structuring classroom experiences that minimize the opportunity for knee-jerk reactions to difficult problems, students can develop the capability to engage in careful ethical reasoning. One effective method is practicing the five core skills underlying the Baird Decision Model™ —a process that helps transform passion and anger into meaningful action.

Be Attentive: Core to critical thinking is the ability to separate facts from assumptions and to evaluate the strength of the assumptions put forward in support of or opposition to a particular course of action. Stubbornly holding on to uninformed ideas is one of largest barriers to critical thinking in ethics, as one’s very identity is tied to their beliefs about what particular actions are right or wrong.

In the debate about the responsible use of firearms and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, asking students to do research and evaluate the quality of the information before coming up with solutions can help move the conversation away from closely held—but often unthoughtful—opinions to informed, more nuanced opinions. This strategy does require that the conversation take place over more than one class period, so students can prepare. But having the initial conversation be about the quality of the evidence for various positions reduces the intensity of the exchange and teaches students to evaluate facts and ideas rather than judge people.

Be Intelligent: Rather than focusing on right answers, this step of inquiry asks salient questions. What are our obligations in this situation? What consequences am I willing to have as a result of my actions? What is required to care for those with no power and get a fair result? What does my role require that I do in this situation? Each of these questions comes from a different ethical perspective.

Through asking questions, the core ethical tensions are exposed. For the conversation about guns, the tension is between protecting individual action and right to self-protection at the same time that community concerns for safety are addressed. What are appropriate limits (if any) on an individual’s ability to own and use firearms? What are the limits (if any) on community action to create and maintain a safe and secure environment for its members through limiting activities that might cause danger or death?

Be Reasonable: As students move to the next phase of reasoning, different approaches are evaluated. The goal is to put forward a set of policies that promote as much individual freedom as possible while creating as safe and secure of an environment as possible. Resources such as the Washington Post article, “How strictly are guns regulated where you live?” that outlines seven types of gun control legislation, or sites that give background on state gun laws such as Guns To Carry, help learners think outside of the proverbial box. Students learn that different options or combinations of options may be available for resolution of the tension.

Be Responsible: Through learning how to analyze an ethical dilemma with a bias toward action, learners have a strengthened voice and a sense of agency. Armed with information, a sense of what ethical action requires, and a vision for what options for action are available, individuals as well as the community as a whole are ready to make a difference.

The students from Broward County who had been through debate training and had researched the issue of gun violence were prepared and equipped to speak up when the unthinkable happened, a person came to their campus and used a firearm to take innocent lives. They were able to speak to those responsible for shaping the law. They were able to share their pain and anguish with others to get action from mobilizing national rallies to incenting businesses to evaluate their policies.

Be Reflective: No one wants innocent lives to be lost. However, not everyone will agree with the banning of certain firearms and other actions advocated by those students. Some may advocate more nuanced action with a different set of policies to resolve the tension. But, regardless of our individual position on how to effectively address violence caused by the irresponsible use of guns in our country, I believe that as educators, we have the responsibility to equip our learners to engage the conversation about violence and other difficult conversations, so they can effectively participate in the shaping of our life together, whether as citizens or members of a company or organization.

Ethics education at its best prepares learners to be thought-leaders who courageously take action as they work through the perennial issues of being persons-in-community. EthicsGame’s mission is to design engaging simulations and educational content that build learners’ capabilities in ethical decision making. We are also committed to equipping faculty members to effectively facilitate these important conversations. As all of us work together to develop opportunities for quality ethics education, we know that we are building the capability of the next generation to effectively navigate this world. What work could be more rewarding?

Finding Emmet Brickowski

Finding Emmet Brickowski

Over Christmas, my granddaughter wheedled me into watching The Lego Movie—an aminated film released in 2014 that I had somehow missed. When asked why I should watch it, Catie said she liked its message: that an ordinary person could make a real difference in the world. She got my attention.

After a delightful romp through Legoland, with obligatory fight scenes with flying Legos, I realized that the movie was a new iteration of the old story of the conflict between order/structure and freedom/creativity. When the movie ended, I enticed Catie into an exchange about the challenge of resolving problems by creating teams that blend the best traits of those who know how to follow the rules with the imagination of those who bend them—the enduring stuff of conversations for those of us who teach ethics.

Now, I’m not quite ready to recommend The Lego Movie as an assignment for ethics classes (although having students compare the role and activities of the villainous Lord Business with our revered business titans might be fun). But the whole exercise caused me to think about one of the core challenges of teaching: finding fresh ways to engage our time-challenged tech-savvy students into discussions about how to effectively live and work with other human beings—the time-tested realm of ethics.

We know the questions haven’t changed. How do we choose goals that can both allow us to be the best expression of ourselves while creating work environments that allow other people to do the same? How do we balance competing ethical principles when we’re stressed or under pressure? How do we use our personal power wisely, so we don’t abuse or oppress others? How do we model ethical leadership in a rapidly-changing world?

One of the hardest tasks for a faculty member is enticing people into a thoughtful exploration of those perennial questions within a contemporary context and avoid having them toss half-thought ideas out as foregone conclusions. Movies and YouTube videos can provide rich conversation starters. However, using current media offerings as a wormhole into a deeper exchange requires skillful Socratic dialogue because students are used to viewing instances of popular culture only for their entertainment value. And in online or blended classes, engaging the deliberation is even more difficult.

But, the payoff is worth the effort; educators can inform world-views and change lives. And, as together we find ways to help our learners explore eternal dilemmas in a new light, we may even help them discover their own interior Emmet Brickowski—an ordinary Lego figurine who by believing he has been called to save his community courageously acts and makes a difference—against all odds.

That Fragile Bubble of Trust

That Fragile Bubble of Trust

Turns out that a person riding a bicycle in China is only responsible for creating a twelve-inch bubble of safety around them. In the US, the bubble of trust is larger, because we expect the rider to make eye contact with others, signal their intentions, and navigate in a way that maximizes safety for riders, pedestrians, and drivers.

While many believe that safety standards are intuitive and universal, Veronique Greenwood discovered when she moved to China that safety standards are definitely cultural. Within a few months, she began adjusting from the communal safety standards of the US to the individual safety standards of China: clean your own air, check food supplies for purity, and ignore everyone and everything outside of your twelve-inch bubble when riding a bicycle.

As I go around the country speaking to students, faculty, and corporate leaders about ethics, a common refrain is that people should “just do the right thing.” But what Greenwood’s article clearly demonstrates is that “the right thing” is culturally determined. Shared understandings of who is responsible for safety must be continuously articulated and reinforced. Those shared understandings and congruent behaviors create trust.

During the past several months, the American community has had robust conversations about the social contract and expectations of trust. Can women and minorities expect to be free from harassment in the workplace? Can citizens expect that companies will not put toxic chemicals into the water? Who is responsible for research into product safety? What are the limits of political speech? What is our responsibility to work toward civil discourse? What should be the acceptable economic spread between those on the top of the economic ladder and those on the bottom?

The way that individuals, key stakeholders, organizations, and the various government bodies answer these questions over the next months will determine whether our bubble of trust expands, contracts, or implodes so we operate in a culture of no trust. Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue talks about the importance of conversation to establish expectations of trust. In addition, Karen Adkins in Gossip, Epistemology, and Power talks about how those without power have informal networks of information that also work to give people the information they need to determine the size of the trust bubble.

The shape and size of the trust bubble are determined by the ethical norms of people in the community and the legal and regulatory structure of the community. Legislation about harassment, food safety, pollution, and a myriad of other social behaviors let each of us know what behaviors can be expected. And, as shown by recent testimony about the responsibility of social media giants to monitor ads that impact elections, Congress can’t legislate an algorithm. We depend on industries and individuals having enough integrity to live into those expectations.

Our ethics are judged by how well we—individuals and organizations—adhere to the stated rules, how vigorously we monitor our behavior, and, in the absence of regulation, how we exercise our discretion as we build social capital, the currency of trust. The revelations of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry demonstrate that everyone knew that men with power were behaving badly but the companies chose to ignore the behavior to bolster the bottom line. Women knew which power players were the predators and who were the accomplices, but individuals didn’t believe they had enough power to speak up and so depended on an informal network of gossip—that often excluded men—to warn others of the danger. And, those who were supposed to protect those being harassed, the human resources and legal departments, became allies with the harasser through silencing and confidentiality agreements, further reinforcing the culture that no one was taking the sexual harassment laws very seriously.

During the first ten months of his tenure, President Trump has signed forty-nine executive orders. Many of the orders loosen existing regulations, giving companies more leeway in issues ranging from obligations for clean water and air to requirements for equal pay. The question now is whether companies will live into their posted core values, which often hold them to higher standards than the law, or will follow the relaxed letter of the law.

The choice will determine the size of our shared bubble of trust. As Brené Brown states in Braving the Wilderness, “Standing alone in a hypercritical environment or standing together in the midst of difference requires one tool above all others: trust .” Will we have the courage to have those difficult conversations with each other, exploring and establishing shared expectations of trust? Will we be honest with each other about when we expect individuals to care for themselves or when the community will rally together for support?

Developing the skills to engage the conversation can happen in a classroom or seminar. But living into the commitments rather than vacillating based on what is politically and economically beneficial requires integrity and courage. Living into our shared ethical values is an individual choice: a choice made over and over again as we each choose whether to expand or contract the bubble of trust around us, our organization, or our community.

Football and Free Speech

Football and Free Speech

I love football. I’ve been known to annoy family and friends in July as the countdown to the season’s opening begins. And so, as the conversation over whether or not athletes should be able to kneel or absent themselves from the national anthem escalated over last weekend and spilled into basketball, baseball, and even golf, I wondered how I’d facilitate a conversation about the events in my classroom. The answer: a Structured Controversy.

Not wanting to lose any teachable moments, especially when learners cared about current ethical events, I was excited to discover Structured Controversies as a teaching tool at a critical thinking workshop some twenty years ago. The notion is that a class is divided into two opposing camps, considers the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing value priorities, and then engages in conversation to seek a policy resolution that harmonizes the values without discrediting either position, and thus builds trust accross ideological divides.

This tool can be used in a face-to-face or online classroom and for any academic discipline when the value priorities are clear. In this situation, you have some professional athletes (and their fans) who want to kneel or absent themselves from the national anthem to draw attention to racial inequities. On the other side, you have some professional team owners (and their fans) who want to demand that athletes stand for the anthem as they believe that an athletic event should not be politicized. The overarching perennial question: when an employee has a high-profile position, what limits (if any) can/should an employer place on their First Amendment right to political speech?

Using teaching strategies such as Structured Controversies is important if we are actually going to teach and measure learners' abilities to think critically. Derik Bok wrote a telling essay on improving the quality of higher education where he stated that “although 99 percent of professors consider critical thinking an 'essential' or 'very important' goal of a college education, fewer than 20 percent of the exam questions actually tested for this skill.”

Testing for critical thinking can include writing assignments that follow exercises like Structured Controversies where learners actually get practice in formulating policy arguments, explaining them to colleagues, and then drafting resolutions that honor both positions. And, as EthicsGame has shown, web-mediated learning experiences and exams can also effectively teach and measure the skills of critical thinking.

Key is being intentional, doing our own work of thinking carefully about naming the differing value priorities, and then structuring a learning experience that does not require that one side be silenced. Our best teaching happens when students can explore and articulate deeply-held values—even if those values might not be popular. The skill of respectfully harmonizing competing ethical values is invaluable in a world where polarization is more prevalent than ever, exacerbated by social media where we can just participate in our own echo chambers.

Feel free to contact EthicsGame for more information about how our learning tools can help you teach—and measure—a learner’s ability to critically evaluate ethical values in tension and resolve them.

Harmonizing Conflicting Values

Harmonizing Conflicting Values

As we’re all still trying to make sense of the explosion of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last week, the question asked over dinners and drinks is how—how in this time and place can such public displays of hatred exist?

Joshua Greene, in his seminal book Moral Tribes, has one answer: biology. Greene argues that our brains are wired for tribalism that provides a fertile ground for racism. Our instincts prompt us to marginalize the “other,” someone who doesn’t look like, dress like, or otherwise resemble us.

A second answer is socialization. As children, our parents and those around us taught us how to navigate the world so we could be safe and successful. Often, subtle cues of racism are given in those early years, planting the seeds for later action. And, as James Hawdon has found, the internet and other social media outlets fertilize those seeds which grow into fireweeds of racism.

What is insidious, however, is that racism can be covert as well as overt. Many of us who disavow racism fail to see where, through what sociologists call inattentional blindness, we unintentionally support structural racism because we aren’t paying attention. And that’s where resilience becomes critical.

According to researcher Diane Coutu, to be resilient requires a staunch acceptance of reality. We must all be honest enough to watch for where instinctual seeds of racism that are cross-pollinated with tendencies for self-interested action are dormant or beginning to sprout, both within ourselves and our communities.

And then grit comes into play: the commitment to engage in the work of ethical growth. As discussed in our book review of Grit by Angela Duckworth, once we identify an area of growth—identifying and eliminating racism—we have to practice weeding our gardens with an intention of contributing to the well-being of others. What does it mean to practice being ethical? Don’t we all just know good from bad? Unfortunately the answer is, not so much.

Racism exists because one core value—protecting one’s self and the tribe—takes priority over another core value—inclusion of all. Both values are important and both can be taken to extremes that are hurtful to one’s self and others. Thus, the values have to be harmonized. What set of beliefs and behaviors will support individual action and team cohesiveness as well as inclusion of all? To reach that goal, we have to be willing to have the criteria for inclusion be something other than a gut feeling of being comfortable with someone. All that comfort means is that our amygdala and our instinctual bias for tribalism were not triggered.

The purpose of the tribe is safety and support. But alignment of values and purpose, creating communities of safety and support, doesn’t depend on putting together groups who look like us or even only hanging with people who share all of the same beliefs. In the case at hand, we have to pay attention to where our own beliefs and behaviors reinforce tribalism and where acting in self-interest undermines individuals and the group.

LaDainian Tomlinson’s 2017 speech on being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame said it well: “Football is a microcosm of America. All races, religions and creeds living, playing, competing side by side.” In advocating for “Team America,” Tomlinson invited us to evaluate others on their willingness “to compete and take whatever risks necessary to work hard, to succeed.”

Tomlinson harmonized the opposing values of tribalism and inclusion. We still have a team, a community that works toward safety and success. But, that team doesn’t depend on an accident of birth. That team is comprised of those who come together to work toward a common goal, a goal that will help others. That team looks at the gifts of all and doesn’t presuppose that one biological tribe is superior to another.

Telling the truth requires acknowledging that all of our gardens have weeds. Moral courage, the last element of ethical grit, requires a commitment to explore both overt and covert patterns of racism and patiently weed our own garden, pulling up the fireweed sprouts as soon as they are spotted. As we all work toward well-tended individual and community gardens, the displays of virulent racism that rocked our country last week will become fewer in number. We’ll have more situations like Boston where the public outpouring of support for all overshadowed those who wanted to sow more seeds of hate. Resilience and grit will win out over racism.

Filling in the Details

Filling in the Details

One of my favorite end-of-the-day mindless TV shows is Beat Bobby Flay. Last night, as I watched him take out a skilled chef a-gain, I found myself thinking about the TV editing process. Even though we all know that what we see can’t be done in half-an-hour, we have this sense that the cooking and cleaning process is a seamless whole. Continuity—making sure that the images flow in an expected order—is crucial to maintain the illusion. Continuity is broken when a sequence with Bobby not wearing his apron is put in after we’ve seen him mixing up the blackberry sauce with his apron protecting him from splatters.

As I noted the continuity error, I found myself reflecting on how we edit our lives. As we recount our day to ourselves, pour out our woes to our friends, and position ourselves to seek a redress from wrongs, we are as skillful at only noticing what supports our cause and reinforces our image of ourselves as the Flay crew is at building suspense and keeping us intrigued with the cooking process.

Interestingly, our mind, which is supposed to be the impartial arbiter of reality, conspires to create our alternate reality TV. First, according to Lisa Feldman Barrett in How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, our minds anticipate what we are going to see and begin to fill in the details for us—even before we experience the event. Thus, if we are not really paying attention, we may “see” details that we expect but aren’t really there. The only way we snap back to attention is when we see something we don’t expect—like Bobby without an apron after he ostensibly put one on.

And then, to add insult to injury, our minds will reinforce what we thought we saw until we are absolutely convinced that up is down, even when we see a video clip showing us we are wrong.

A core skill for ethical maturity is being able to fully pay attention and neither unfairly edit our experience nor our response as we retell our stories. A core component of this skill is compassionate detachment. If we had no skin in the game, what would we see and how would we name the event? As we evaluate our emotions, to what degree are we really responding to the actual event, and is the response appropriate?

Our ethics—how we treat ourselves and others—flow from beliefs that inform behaviors. If our beliefs are based on an interpretation of life that omits key details or recounts events out of their actual sequence, we will not respond appropriately to our environment. And, we might miss the opportunity to contribute to a world where people can thrive.

Compassionate detachment is tricky. We can’t be too harsh or we’ll fall into a cycle of blame and discouragement. Nor can we be too optimistic or we’ll miss an opportunity for right action and reconciliation. A useful technique is to begin by asking what we really saw or experienced. What details did we add that we expected to see but weren’t truly there? What details did we omit that didn’t match our expected picture?

This morning, I watched a short video where a young man tried to set up a homeless man by giving him $100. The man was then followed and filmed. Predictably, he went to a liquor store. The filmmaker was not surprised. But then the man began seeking out other homeless people and giving them—food. He had gone to the liquor store, bought food, and was handing out lunch to others stranded at park benches and picnic tables. Those filming did not see what they expected and were schooled in compassion when they asked the man why he shared. He stated that he ended up homeless after caring for his mother who recently died. He had quit his job to be her full-time caretaker and then realized that he did not have money for rent and couldn’t quickly get a job. He said that those on the street often had one turn of bad luck that landed them at a soup kitchen or shelter.

That story reminds us again not to fill in the details of the story without doing a bit more investigation. What we expect to see may in fact be far from the actual truth. From seeking out the unseen details of an event, we can move to evaluating what we saw and choose an appropriate response—often one that is kinder and more effective than our usual knee-jerk reactions. The young man who watched the homeless person buy food for others gave him another $100 to continue the good work. In our professional life, leadership guru Kendall Lyman calls this process learning to be creative in our response instead of reactive. But we cannot creatively respond unless the foundation upon which we act is based on fact and not fantasy—or prejudice.

Give it a try! Take one day and practice looking carefully at what is happening. When you think you have seen clearly what is going on, go back and look again. And then with compassionate detachment carefully evaluate your response rather than editing your personal TV show as you go. You might be surprised at what you see—and then how you behave.

You Really Think That?

You Really Think That?

One of our hardest tasks is to listen with an open heart and an open mind to someone whose opinions and beliefs are diametrically opposed to our own. And yet, if we’re going to be successful in an organization or in the fashioning of public policy, we have to listen to each other to at least understand the other side.

In this age of social media polarization and trigger warnings, faculty members sometimes shy away from engaging conversations about differences—especially ethical differences. Finding teaching tools to move students beyond the black and white, “that’s what I think and that’s all there is to it,” can be challenging.

EthicsGame’s updated and expanded version of the Ethical Lens Inventory (ELI) is designed to help breach that divide. The ELI demonstrates how differences in behavior and expectations flow from different prioritization of values—whether to follow the head or the heart, for instance. In this way, students are introduced to notions of ethical plurality—we have more than one way to be with each other in community.

So, whether you’ve used the ELI in your classes forever or you want to try something new, we invite you to take a peek at the 2017 version of the ELI.

First, the ELI has a spiffy new look. While the questions in the instrument are the same, the participant interface is easier to navigate and the questions flow more logically.

Next, the descriptions of the ethical lenses are more robust. Instead of just two or three pages of information, the learner now has up to ten pages not only describing the strengths and blind spots of the ethical lens but also providing tips on how to become more ethically mature and work with others in different ethical lenses.

Another difference is more nuance in the results. As students complete the ELI, they learn which ethical perspective is their home lens. In addition to learning their ethical strengths, they now can consider the implication of intensely held beliefs rather than mildly held preferences. Often, someone with a strong preference for autonomy—some of our favorite libertarians—may approach restrictions on individual freedom more viscerally than someone who on the surface is in the same ethical lens but has a mild rather than intense commitment to principle-based ethics. Exploring the differences in intensity can help explain differences in policy and practices.

The final update brings clarity to the Center Perspective. As we conducted workshops and seminars, a consistent question was, “What does it mean if I land in the middle.” My flippant response was often that the person just didn’t have an ethical backbone. However, a young philosophy major challenged me by asking about the existential philosophers. Turns out that Simone de Beauvoir, in her provocative book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, provides a compelling argument for being authentic first and then thinking about ethical norms. De Beauvoir reminds us that while we can be principled, we can’t presume others will agree with or even respect our principles, because people have free will and we don’t know how they will respond. Thus, learning how to effectively deal with ambiguity can provide ethical strength.

The EthicsGame team would like to thank the more than 500,000 faculty members, facilitators, and learners who have completed the ELI since its launch in 2010. Your thoughtful critiques and enthusiasm for the accessible information about chewy ethical theory informed the updates as we rolled out our new, improved version. We know that you’ll find the ELI a wonderful way to springboard the conversations about ethical diversity and how we can all respect each other and learn to get along. Thank you all for participating in the conversation about how we can each bring our best ethical self to our communities and workplace environments.

The Tyranny of the “Brightest and the Best”

Tyranny of the best and brightest

In an interesting slide-share, Netflix Culture: Freedoms and Responsibility, this fast-rising company presents its core values. as in many tech companies, one of the primary values is hiring the “brightest and the best.” and, if people don’t maintain that standard, they are “given a generous severance” and sent on their way. ouch!

Reflecting on that statement, I had a familiar tightening in my stomach: Could I measure up to that standard? I have no confidence that I am part of the “brightest and best” cohort. And, then I noticed that the belief that being number one is the only goal worth pursing can lead to some interesting, unintended results.

For example, the uproar about sexism that permeated the Uber culture, which hit the blogosphere and then mainstream news, highlighted some of the consequences. Aubs they strove to reach the top of the ladder, Uber was accused of not only engaging in predatory pricing but allowing a culture of bare-knuckle competition to create a dysfunctional work environment—causing wall street financiers to finally sit up and take notice. Clearly, Uber’s fixation on pursuing market position resulted in a de-emphasis on the ethics of the organization, both in allowing the mistreatment of their employees as well as shortchanging their other stakeholders.

Another consequence of “be the best or go home” thinking can be seen in the Academy with the focus on being published in A journals. Andrew Hoffman argues in a provocative article entitled In Praise of B Journals that a fixation on publishing in A journals has resulted in academic publishing “becoming more about establishing a pecking order and less about pursuing knowledge.” This narrow focus results in a limited audience, less creative and diverse research, guaranteed irrelevance, and questionable impact. Hoffman believes that valuing B journals and alternate methods of disseminating academic research will result in more vibrant research agendas and allow researchers to make a greater impact.

Maybe leaders need to acknowledge that most people—including them—are not the “brightest and the best.” Maybe, those leaders and employees would be better served by being content with being “good enough and growing.” That mantra allows business leaders to strive for the business goal of thriving and growing in a competitive environment and the ethical goal of embracing personal growth, treating employees with respect, and building trust with their primary stakeholders.

An intriguing new management book, Mastering Leadership by Robert Anderson and William Adams (Wiley, 2016), asserts that unless a leader attends both to the culture of the organization and their own personal growth, they will not be effective leaders. the claim is that as leaders learn how to be both more effective and more ethical, they will then be able to leverage that learning into creative leadership rather than being reactive to external circumstances.

So, if the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, had paid attention to early warning signs of a toxic environment by looking at his own lack of interpersonal skills—his deficit in ethical acuity—he would not have had the bad press and then the fallout from yelling at an Uber driver. Kalanick finally admitted that he needed to look at his own behavior and the culture of the organization. With more ethical awareness, his realization could have come sooner.

The bottom line is that for organizations to thrive, they must attend both to organizational values leading to success and interpersonal values that support a healthy, productive culture. The ethics of an organization—the way that they translate values into behavior—will help them bridge those two value sets. That bridging and ongoing reflection lets them avoid arrogance, which is the blind spot of those repeating the mantra of only seeking the “brightest and best,” to the more modest but realistic stance of welcoming and developing those who are “good enough and growing.” And, that grace and expectation could be extended to those in the C-Suite as well.

Riding the Rapids of Change

Riding the rapids of change

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.

Imagination, Ethics, and Strategic Thinking!

Imagination ethics and strategic thinking

“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!

The Power of Fear

power of fear

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.


just not my fault

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.



five fingers one hand

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:

  1. Be attentive: What is going on in your environment? What is your “programming”? Where are your biases? What are others around you doing?
  2. Be intelligent: What are the ethical values that govern your life? What are your personal non-negotiables? What are the commitments of your organization? Your profession?
  3. Be reasonable: As you consider both yourself and others, as you engage both your head and your heart, what are ways that you can leverage your ethical strengths (and avoid your ethical blind spots) in order to be the best person that you can be while inspiring and leading others to be their best selves as well?
  4. Be responsible: What is going on in your environment? What is your “programming”? Where are your biases? What are others around you doing?
  5. Be reflective: What needs to be done? Where did you succeed? Where did you miss the mark? And, how do you pull up your socks and move into the world with courage and love?

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.


ethics more relevant than ever

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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