“Dial it Back” (Over-Solving Problems Can Be Unethical)

Dial it Back

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Sometimes out of fear, convenience or profit, leaders use a solution that goes way beyond what is necessary to solve the problem or meet the need. There are broad ethical implications of over solving problems, and this post explores some of them.

When we choose a solution that is more extreme than necessary, we may cause negative unintended consequences. And the more extreme that solution is, the more extreme the consequences may be. See Overuse of Antibiotics: Antibiotic Hand Soap is Part of the Problem for a current example. In this example, the consumer may feel “safe” using antibacterial soap to kill germs. The problem is that over time, using antibiotic hand soap actually worsens the problem it is trying to resolve.

Possible Unintended Consequences of Over-Solving Problems

When we over-solve problems, we may be thinking only short-term. In the antibiotic hand soap example, when a customer washes her hands at the kitchen sink, the soap kills germs (short-term). Long-term, though, that choice can make the problem worse through  a “rebound effect,” and risk human health by putting a steady stream of antibiotics into our water supply.

Using Systems Thinking to Anticipate Unintended Consequences

It may sound like common sense to use the solution that causes the least harm and still solves the problem. But consider how different that choice seems when an extreme solution that would cause unintended consequences is 50 times more profitable.

Using systems thinking helps us think beyond profitability and helps us prevent the kind of narrow, short-term thinking that leads to unethical choices. When we think in systems, the variables of time, interdependence and connectedness are “built in.”

“Systems thinking can be thought of as a language for communicating about complexities and interdependencies.”

“An inherent assumption of the systems thinking worldview is that problems are internally generated—we often create our own “worst nightmares.”

Michael Goodman, Systems Thinking as a Language, Pegasus Systems Thinker online at appliedsystemsthinking.com

As leaders, we need to be mindful of the need to “dial it back” to the least harmful solution that solves the problem, and to choose sensible solutions based on much more than profitability.

These related posts illustrate why we need to use ethical thinking: 

5 Unintended Consequences of Linear Problem Solving      Precautionary Principle: Profiting With Care

10 Reasons to Embrace Complexity      Ethical Leadership Context

These websites provide free tools and articles for thinking through complex problems:

powerful-problem-solving.com        mindtools.com       pegasuscom.com        appliedsystemsthinking.com

Questions for Reflection:

1. Where in our work are we using a solution that is much more extreme than necessary?

2. What are the potential unintended consequences of that choice?

3. How can we dial it back to a solution that better fits the problem and minimizes unintended consequences?


For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC 



  1. Thanks for your power-packed response! You have expressed well the need for trustworthy business leadership that thinks about impact in ways that go way beyond marketing, position and profitability.


  2. Thank you for today’s especially POWER-PACKED insight.

    A closely related observation I’d like to see you riff on is: today’s pandemic of fear of the future (most notably among those in local control of others within western societies) gave rise to “political correctness”, by now the accepted social conceit which enables same to safely rely upon their job status to protect them from disciplinary measures whenever they arrogating unto themselves licence to openly bully all who offer alternative views, or merely demure.

    It’s particularly rampant among senior managers aiming for mandarin status within ALL government institutions and govt funded NGO’s, and most firms in the fields of finance, brokerage, healthcare, science and technology research, communications, general commerce and virtually all large faith-based and other charitable organizations.

    Quite clearly, it is that ever darkening (and positive energy sapping) cancerous growth on the skin of western society which accounts for the notable upswing in the conscious use of “over-solving” to summarily shut down common sense thinking among underlings.

    During my twenty year career as an independent organizational analyst and leader of humane participatory change management to effect “continuous results improvement without victims”, I’ve observed in horror its growth from a fad, to a trend, to its status as today’s “new normal”.

    As a most grateful appreciator of democrary and the inherently philosophically-liberal principles and values required to preserve it as the foundation of every advanced society, I regard the combination of political correctness (i.e. – socially acceptable lying) and over-solving (i.e. – fancy truth dissembling at the cost of underlings) as highly apt to soon become civilized society disassembling, unless some harshly quality-of-life diminishing event affecting everyone soon brings all of us to our senses.

    Love your writing style – but obviously “lack the knack”.

    Ken Heard (SEMI-retired)
    Port Stanley
    ONtario, Canada


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