July 14, 2020
Dilemmas are tricky to navigate by design. There are lots of definitions you can find on Google for what constitutes an ethical dilemma, but one I find simplest and most useful is this: A situation where two moral principles are in conflict.
The classic dilemma often discussed in ethical circles is called the “whistleblower’s dilemma.” If the whistleblower reveals what they know, the company will be hurt and the whistleblower will betray their team’s trust. If the whistleblower chooses to stay loyal to the team by saying nothing, they protect the company but betray their personal integrity by not speaking the truth.
In light of all the current events swirling around us, I have been thinking a lot lately about ethical dilemmas and the responsibility we have as leaders to try to figure out “what is the right thing to do here?” In today’s environment, every day it seems we (and the leaders guiding us) are faced with difficult choices that truly have life and death implications. Do we continue to isolate at home in order to prevent illness and death or do we open up the economy to avoid starvation and financial ruin? Do the rights of the few outweigh the rights of the many? Do we play a short-term or a long-term game here? Do we respond with justice or mercy to the plight of individuals, cities, and states struggling with resource shortfalls. Who gets the ventilator? Hopefully few of the decisions you must make on a daily basis are quite this dire, but it does beg the question, “How do you go about figuring out “what is the “right” thing to do when faced with difficult choices?
I’ve spent the last decade working alongside executive teams as they worked to unpack and understand the ethics and personal moral code that informed their own decision making. Some tried to dismiss the messiness and complexity of the case studies we put in front of them – preferring instead to choose a more expedient, cut-and-dried answer. “The answer is obvious,” they would say. Others sought to place blame or stand in judgement – which made it easier to choose a side. Some chose to “go along” with the majority opinion in the group. “It’s just a case study after all.” While others became swamped and overwhelmed by all the competing interests, waffling, unable to find a clear path forward. Some drew comfort from enforcing the rules while others listened to their heart or relied on their “gut.
The current environment is a learning laboratory if you are willing to take the dive and think more deeply about the beliefs and values and the “whys” that guide you. But there is more thinking to be done.
- Begin with a discussion of the values you esteem most.
- In what ways do your current attitudes or behaviors align with the values you hold? Where might they conflict?
- In what ways might getting clearer for self make you a stronger, more nuanced leader?
- In what ways might your needs and preferences create potential bias or blind spots in your own thinking?
- Who or what might trigger reactivity (instead of thinking) in you?
We can explore this more fully in a future article – but for now, continue thinking for yourself as best you can. Resist the tugs, pulls, and emotional reactivity of the systems around you, which will ultimately free you to find greater clarity and direction around “what is the right thing to do?”