The Complexity of Ethical Thinking and Decision Making (Part 2)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

In Part 1 of this series I looked at the importance of Deep Thinking. In Part 2, we’ll consider the Context. No matter how much effort it takes to understand the context, we can’t expect to make an ethical decision without taking that step.

Understanding the Context

Without seeing the context – a broad and sweeping view of the issue we are discussing or trying to resolve and factors in the environment that affect it – we are just describing or trying to solve a SUBSET of the real issue. We are not seeing the whole issue. To use ethical thinking and decision-making, we must remind ourselves that the SUBSET is not the whole. 

If you drive a sports car on a crowded city street with your eyes closed, people are going to get hurt (including you). Making decisions without understanding the context is similarly risky. 

A clear understanding of the context is an important part of staying ethically aware and competent, and both are necessary qualities for responsible leadership. Ethical leaders know that there can be no ethical awareness without understanding the context, and without awareness, competence and responsibility are also out of reach.

    — Linda Fisher Thornton, Ethical Leaders Understand the Context, Leading in Context Blog 

It’s easy to find one or two pieces of information about an issue and think we understand it. In Context Matters: What We’re Learning About Food I explored what happens when we think about nutrition by looking at individual nutrients without considering the context. That example drives home the point because most of us have probably gone through life thinking about nutrition as a collection of individual nutrients.

“Applying the ‘food matrix’ concept we learn that we can’t accurately assess nutritional impact based on breaking down individual nutrients in isolation from the whole. We have to consider what we added and what we left out. In other words, context matters.”

Linda Fisher Thornton, Context Matters: What We’re Learning About Food, Leading in Context Blog

Understanding the context helps us make choices that “work” ethically in the particular setting and it prepares us to adapt to a changing world.  What is ethical in one context may not be in another.

Context Helps us See the Bigger Meaning 

Some people may feel that it’s wrong to hold someone accountable now for an ethical violation when the same action was not punished in the past. Considering the context helps us see that this change is not a result of “inconsistent” treatment, but of increasing expectations and accountability for ethical behavior.

“Full accountability – holding people accountable for ethical problems that were previously overlooked – may appear on the surface to be inconsistent and unfair. But when you take a closer look at the trends, you will discover an important reason why people are more frequently being held fully accountable. It is because ethical expectations are increasing and expanding.”

Linda Fisher Thornton, Full Accountability for Ethics: The New Normal, Leading in Context Blog

Context is an important element in ethical decision making. 

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Don’t Do

  • Assume they already know the context
  • Ignore new research or the informed opinions of others outside of their groups
  • “Save time” by ignoring the context so they can make a quick and decisive decision

What Ethical Thinkers and Leaders Do

  • Ethical thinkers and leaders take time to understand the context
  • They look outside of their own groups to see what others are learning about the issue
  • They carefully consider the context before making decisions or taking action
  • They adjust their thinking as new credible information emerges

Leaders who ignore the context frustrate those they lead and serve. Why? Ignoring the context and making a quick decision often leads to costly and time-consuming fixes later. The fallout from decisions made in a vacuum can be severe and leaders can miss critical ethical issues. Taking the time to understand the context, we more easily make decisions that fall within the ethical zone. 

Watch for Part 3, when I’ll explore the importance of embracing complexity

 

Click the cover to read a free preview!

LeadinginContext.com  

©2019 Leading in Context LLC

 

Ethical Thinking For Challenging Times

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Albert Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Yet many leaders try to unravel increasingly complex issues using the same thinking process they have always used. 

New Ethical Thinking Course

I am delighted to announce that I am partnering with the University of Richmond Robins School of Business to offer a new Executive Education course “Ethical Thinking Through the 7 Lenses.”

 

University of Richmond Robins School of Business, Executive Education 

Ethical Thinking Through the 7 Lenses: This course will develop your ethical thinking skills in 7 important dimensions, help you understand local and global issues in a broader context, and equip you to make ethical decisions with increased confidence.

May 22, 2019 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 pm

Register For the Course

 

Why We Need Ethical Thinking

To celebrate the new course, I wrote an article for the University of Richmond Robins School of Business Executive Education publication EXCEED! that includes recent research about Why We Need Ethical Thinking. 

Read the article

 

It’s time to update our thinking the same way we routinely update our computer’s software. We know that updating our software is necessary for efficiency, effectiveness and risk reduction. It’s time to admit that updating our thinking is even more important for the same reasons.

 

 

 

Click the cover to read a free preview!

LeadinginContext.com  

©2019 Leading in Context LLC

 

Research: Moving Beyond Cause-and-Effect Thinking

By Linda Fisher Thornton

The traditional view of research in the U.S. has been that something has to be proven to a statistically significant degree using established research procedures. It should be able to be replicated to confirm that the results are accurate and true. The problem is that established research procedures generally call for isolating one thing at a time to prove cause and effect, but we live in a world of complex, connected systems.

“People don’t become systems thinkers because systems thinking is so cool; they do so because they discover that linear thinking won’t answer their questions. Linear thinking is cause-and-effect thinking.”

JIM OLLHOFF and MICHAEL WALCHESKI,MAKING THE JUMP TO SYSTEMS THINKING, TheSystemsThinker.com

Is an “Accurate” Study Possible? 

Researchers may pride themselves on accuracy using the current approach, but cause-and-effect thinking may still lead to mistakes. The traditional research thinking believes that if a study is accurate, we should be able to repeat it and get the same result. If we do, then the effect has been “proven.” The problem with this thinking is that if we try to prove something is or is not causing something else, we ignore important variables that limit both the accuracy and the usefulness of the results:

  • The context may change the outcome (and context isn’t factored in if we’re using cause-and-effect thinking)
  • Some effects happen only some of the time (a repeated study may result in different conclusions without either study being wrong)
  • There may be other impacting causes that were not studied that led to the outcome

Which Research Studies Are Reliable?

There are so many predatory publishers sharing fake research results (see this Yale link) that it is becoming harder to tell which studies are responsibly conducted. The results of research studies are used to make decisions that have a broad effect on society and any fraud in the process can cause harm. 

Complexity Can’t Be Ignored

Our understanding of DNA and genes has progressed to the point where we know that certain combinations of things can result in genes being switched “on” or “off.” According to the US National Library of Medicine Genetics Home Reference Article Can Genes Be Turned On and Off in Cells? “Genes are turned on and off in different patterns during development to make a brain cell look and act different from a liver cell or a muscle cell, for example. Gene regulation also allows cells to react quickly to changes in their environments. This means that in addition to our external environment being impacted by many different changing systems at the same time, our internal environment is also made up of complex connecting systems that adapt to changing conditions.

Closed Loop Peer-Review System Can Block Innovation

Academics and professionals who are pressured to publish sometimes game the already flawed peer review systemThe research publishing system has built-in biases that are attracting increasing attention and some scholars believe that the peer review process by design can block innovative work. According to Aaron E. Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, “It takes significant reviewer agreement to have a paper accepted. One potential downside is that important research bucking a trend or overturning accepted wisdom may face challenges surviving peer review.” (Aaron E. Carroll, Peer Review: The Worst Way to Judge Research Except For All the Others, New York Times)

Can you ever isolate a cause and effect relationship when studying multiple connected and adapting systems? How can you test research more reliably before it is published? The current system of research and publication (a system with built-in hurdles that may block innovative thinking) is in need of innovative thinking. 

 

 

 

 

Click the cover to read a free preview!

LeadinginContext.com  

©2019 Leading in Context LLC

 

They’re Trying to Tell Us Something

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Since I started researching ethical leadership, I have begun to notice just how many different people are trying to steer us in the right direction. Their ethical messengers cross geographic and time boundaries and professions. The messages they leave are compelling. They are trying to tell us something important.

The messages are packaged in a multitude of different ways including books, music, quotes and stories. People who have realized important insights about ethics are leaving a trail for others to follow. But to follow, we have to notice.

Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and other ethical sages don’t have an “exclusive” when it comes to ethical wisdom. There are many more recent messengers. Popular songs engage us in learning about how bullies harm and how each person should be respected. Dr. Seuss wrote about human rights and sustainability in The Sneetches and Other Stories and The Lorax. Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai and many, many others have imparted wisdom to us about what it means to live ethically.

“I want to thank all of you out there who have been brave enough to walk point and force change. To fight for basic human rights that…my son’s generation and the generations to follow will so greatly benefit from.”             

—Sally Field Quoted by Human Rights Campaign, HRC.org

When you’re “tuned in” to something, you tend to notice it more frequently. This week, notice the ethical messages around you. Look for the trail of breadcrumbs left by people who have struggled and learned and advanced their understanding of the human condition and ethics.

Each of us has a part to play in creating a better world. Once we begin to notice the trail of breadcrumbs, we can look for clues to see where that trail is leading us.

Questions For Reflection

  1. Where in the course of my day am I noticing messages about our human responsibilities to each other?
  2. What can I learn from the messengers?
  3. How can I help spread the word?

 

 

 

 

Click the cover to read a free preview!

LeadinginContext.com  

©2019 Leading in Context LLC

 

%d bloggers like this: