Ethical dilemmas are the last stage of ethical decision making – here’s stages 1 and 2

  • 21 September 2015

I write many ethical dilemmas – it’s fun assembling the characters and devising a situation when conflicting values have to be resolved. Yet dilemmas only deal with one part of an ethical approach to decision making, and the last part at that. To be confident of your ability to take account of ethics in the decisions that you make, there are two stages before that ‘resolving dilemmas’ stage that you need to work on.

Think of it this way: you can only be good at resolving ethically tricky situations if you are able to recognise, in the first place, the ethics involved in the business scenario being played out. That’s called the ‘recognition’ stage. And to be honest, it’s a stage that most insurance people don’t spend enough time on. They may be good decision makers, but they can sometimes just not see the ethical dimension to something. As a result, the consequences of this apparent blind side are then visited upon the sector later, when the outcomes experienced by consumers are below expectations. This could be one reason why recent surveys on trust place insurance below banking, even below estate agents.

And once you’ve recognised that there is an ethical dimension to the scenario before you, what then? Good decisions come from a careful weighing of the issues, the people and the options available. And that means being able to disassemble a situation into its constituent parts. This is called the ‘reflection’ stage. It may sound a bit clinical, as if you’re laying the evidence out on a table for examination. Not so – it’s something usually done intuitively. As someone who uses maps a lot (for orienteering), this reflective stage is like scanning a map or a landscape for the hills, rivers, marshes and tracks that will influence what you do next.

When I speak to firms about ethical leadership, I often focus in on qualities like learning the language of ethics, crafting a clear ethical vision and being able to help people make good decisions. These qualities link with the three stages of ethical decision making – recognition, reflection and resolution. You learn the language of ethics in order to recognise the ethics involved in a business situation. You put together an ethical vision in the same way that you frame the various components of that same situation. And the skills that help you resolve tricky situations are just what you need to be good at supporting people in the challenging decisions they’re taking in support of your ethical vision.

This doesn’t mean that being good at ethical dilemmas is a skill reserved for those in leadership positions. Far from it: anyone who has responsibility for others at work need to be good at them. Tone from the middle is just as important as tone from the top.

So, if you’re considering using ethical dilemmas in your assessment of people in what the Prudential Regulatory Authority refers to as ‘senior insurance management functions’, that’s great, but remember – the outcomes you get will only be as good at what you’ve achieved in those earlier recognition and reflection stages.