Imagine that you are a rising star at a medium-sized investment bank (B&B), and you are currently facing a decision to choose between loyalty to your roommate or to your company and boss. There exists a cult mentality at B&B in that those who stay at the company accept that loyalty to the organisation goes before one’s health, family, and friends.

The situation begins when you’re working on a project that involves orchestrating a leveraged buyout for Suntech, one of B&B’s clients. In addition to providing short-term financing, B&B has put together the syndicate of banks financing the deal and purchased the majority of Suntech’s assets, to be held for a long-term basis. Universal is an additional bank on the team that is involved with the structuring of the deal, underwriting the loan for the debt.

It turns out that your roommate and friend, Sandy is one of the people on Universal’s team working on the project.

One day after work, you come home to find your roommate Sandy in tears. Sandy pleads for you to keep your conversation confidential, and you agree, thinking that her tears are as  a result of a personal issue. It turns out that Universal is dissolving its capital finance group, meaning that not only is Sandy out of a job, but now the deal with B&B is in serious jeopardy. If you do not tell your boss at B&B about this news right away, then the public might hear of the news first, scaring away potential investors and putting both B&B and the client at risk.

At the same time, you’ve  made a promise to Sandy not to tell anyone about the situation since this information is confidential.

What should you do?

To what extent do you think
1) maintaining the confidentiality agreement with your roommate, and
2) informing your boss about the news are compatible/incompatible?

Because we are evolutionary primed to focus more on bad behaviour most research on ethics in organisations has largely focused on the antecedents and consequences of misconduct, investigating the factors that influence individuals who care about morality to act unethically and the impact of these actions in the workplace.

More recently, the field has examined the impact of tools to help employees and managers make more ethical decisions when facing temptations to cheat. Although the tendency to choose wrong over right has understandably drawn the majority of research attention in the wake of a long list of business scandals over the last two decades, managers and employees in organisations must also contend with another comparably important category of ethical challenge: when right collides with right, shifting the focus of dilemmas to reveal how employees and teams might devise practical solutions that resolve the inherent tension in a dilemma.

Let’s return to the above dilemma. Would you agree that this dilemma presents two possible courses of action: disclose the information to your boss, who can take action to prevent the loss, but in doing so, breach confidentiality and loyalty to your friend; or uphold your commitment to confidentiality and friendship by remaining silent, thereby risking tremendous damage to your employer and one of its clients?

In this moral dilemma the competing principles are both highly valued and choosing one value seems to necessitate forgoing the other, making the problem difficult to solve with no obvious “right” answer.

When encountering difficult ethical challenges, people generally default to asking themselves “What should I do?” with any guidance typically cast in terms of “should.”

How many “Shoulds” does your organisation have in their Ethics Code?
Researchers Ting Zhang, Francesca Gino and Joshua Margolis created a data-set with the ethics codes of Fortune 50 companies sampled in 2013 and counted the number of times the word “should” appeared in each ethics code. They found that “should” appears approximately thirty times on average in each of them. Organisations, it seems, frame the principles to guide managerial conduct in terms of “should.” Despite the pervasiveness of having a “should” mindset when confronting moral dilemmas the researchers discovered that approaching ethical dilemmas with a “should” mindset reduces people’s likelihood of generating moral insight, forcing individuals to make a stark choice.

The act of thinking about “should” leads individuals to prioritise one moral claim over another and focus on the justifications of their decision. However, there are often multiple possible courses of action individuals could potentially devise—beyond the apparent stark choices—when facing dilemmas.

The Content of Contemplation and Conversation Matters
Contemplation requires the moral insight of discovering solutions other than selecting one of the competing ethical options over another. Conversation requires the moral courage of Speaking and Listening Up (Courageous Conversations) to generate solutions that allow both competing imperatives to be met.

Shifting individuals from a more conventional “should” mindset to a more empowered “could” mindset encourages greater exploration of possibilities and moves people from analysing and weighing what they assume to be fixed and mutually exclusive alternatives to generating options that might reconcile underlying imperatives.

“Could” Changes the Conversation
When we ask the question “What could I do? we can be shifted to re conceive the problem as one that doesn’t necessarily involve forced trade-offs.

We see and experience this in unstructured conversations when conversational partners place their investment in securing an expected and fixed outcome, trade-offs from their partners included.  This is especially so when individuals perceive their environment as competitive. They often assume that goals across the parties are negatively related, implying that they must make distributive trade-offs in order to find solutions. This polarised conversational mindset often leads individuals to reach purely distributive solutions that assume the size of the shared pie as given. In contrast, conversational partners trained in Courageous Conversations realise the potential to reconcile competing sides and are more likely to discover integrative solutions that expand the size of the overall pie and which often maximise outcomes for both conversational parties.

In decision making contexts that pit two or more competing moral principles against one another, it’s helpful to approach the problem with a creative, courageous mindset conducive to discovering solutions that honour both of the competing moral imperatives.

Let’s re visit the dilemma at the beginning of my blog. Consider that Conventional Responses guided by ‘Should’ might be:

  • Tell boss confidential information, with the trade-off being your friendship with Sandy;
  • Keep information confidential, with the trade-off being compromising your loyalty and possible position at B&B.

Consider that responses guided by ‘Could’ might be:

  • Ask Sandy for permission to tell boss confidential information.
  • Convince Sandy that information ought to be revealed to boss.
  • Make information anonymous (provide an anonymous tip, making source of information anonymous, or both).
  • Obtain same information through other channels first before telling the boss.
  • Notify the boss that he should investigate the company and arrive at same information independently.
  • Tell the boss the confidential information while helping roommate find a job at the firm.

All of the above “Could” choices would require courage and the ability to have a Courageous Conversation, asking convincing, notifying and telling.

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