By Linda Fisher Thornton
Organizations are facing multiple connected challenges. First, they need to prevent ethical mistakes in a high speed, highly transparent business environment. Second, they need to engage leaders in relevant ethical learning so that the principles “stick” and are used to handle real problems. Third, they need to help leaders apply ethical thinking so they don’t just take “best practices” at face value.
“The ‘supply side’ of ethics — i.e., organizations’ ability to avoid ethical lapses — has never been more challenging.”
Ghassan Khoury and Maria Semykoz, The New Frontier of Business Ethics, Gallup
The important thing to remember is that we are helping people learn HOW to think, not WHAT to think. Paul Thagard, PhD, a Canadian philisopher and cognitive scientist says that “ethical judgments are often highly emotional, when people express their strong approval or disapproval of various acts. Whether they are also rational depends on whether the cognitive appraisal that is part of emotion is done well or badly.” (Paul Thagard, PhD, Ethical Thinking Should be Rational AND Emotional, Psychology Today)
If we want to implement ethical decisions, we will need to do our own ethical thinking and not borrow the thinking of others. Approaches considered “best practices” are often used as blueprints by organizations, but that is not always an effective approach when the goal is ethical thinking.
Tony Schwartz, in his HBR article What it Takes to Think Deeply About Complex Problems, reminds us that “managing complexity requires courage — the willingness to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty and let its rivers run through us.” He explains that “the best practice is to not overrely on best practices, which typically emerge from our current assumptions and worldview.“
Replicating best practices is common since it seems to save organizations quite a bit of time and money. The problem is that the “best practice” that earned one organization a desired result may or may not have been derived using ethical thinking. It can be efficient, cost effective and impactful AND look like an amazing shortcut, but that “best practice” may not honor all of our organization’s values.
We need to do the work to apply ethical values to avoid replicating flawed thinking in our organizations. We can’t skip carefully ethical consideration just because an action is described as a “best practice.” To drive this point home, ask leader groups to run some “industry best practices” through your organization’s values to see how well they hold up.