Article of the Day: Obstacles to Practicing Professional Ethics in Real Life

Just when you thought it was safe to leave the classroom…

badgoodResearch shows that professionals often make bad or at least non-optimal ethical judgments even when they know the right thing to do. Why might well-educated professionals take ethical missteps? In a recent article, Eugene Soltes, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, discusses three major obstacles that make it difficult for students to transfer their ethical skills from the classroom to the boardroom. Although his examples are from the business world, his points are applicable to ethics training in any profession.

The first obstacle, Soltes says, is this: “In exercises, the consequential decision is identified for participants… Such exercises vastly simplify one of the main challenges—identifying the ethical dilemma in the first place.” James Rest called this skill ethical sensitivity and identified it as one of several key components of ethical decision making.

Tenbrunsel and Messick discuss a similar concept they call ethical framing—the ability to see decisions as having ethical components. In class, the ethics frame is obvious. In real-world situations, ethics frames may get lost when combined with other necessary or common decision frames, as in the contexts of finance, politics, and friendship.

The second obstacle is that “training inevitably exposes different points of views and judgments,” but in the real world “differing viewpoints are often stifled by the desire to agree or appease others,” Soltes writes. Stifling alternative views is a hallmark of groupthink, a phenomenon first explored by Janis to explain why groups often make horrible decisions.

The third obstacle is that “most actual decisions are made quickly and rely on intuition rather than careful, reflective reasoning.” Soltes’s observation has strong research support. For example, Kahneman and his colleagues (Kahneman, 2011; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979) have found that people are prone to a number of cognitive and emotional biases when facing stress and uncertainty—which, as you may know, is a lot of the time. For example, Kahneman talks about loss aversion—the tendency to prefer avoiding a loss to making an equivalent gain, and to adopt more risky strategies to avoid loss. Psychologists, for example, may choose an ethically risky behavior when they react more strongly to the threat of a lawsuit than to the benefits of client success.


deciseSoltes recommends one important solution to the problems he identifies: “creating training exercises that better simulate the actual environment.” He compares ethics training to working with athletes, who need to train in situations that get closer and closer to actual game conditions.

Let me suggest a couple other strategies that I incorporate into my ethics courses. One is to focus on excellence, not just adequacy, on actualizing high ethical ideals in addition to following the rules. Such a positive focus may prevent or mitigate the use of risky strategies to avert loss.

Another strategy: Have students develop their intuitive reasoning powers, thereby reducing the potential to fall into cognitive and emotional traps, even under stressful conditions. In most of the exercises we do in class, we begin with self-reflection. For example, before we activate an ethics frame in discussing a case, I like to ask students what they’d do if they were the client’s friend, sister-in-law, accountant, etc. By exploring immediate emotional and everyday moral reactions, we get a handle on an important part of our ethical judgment. We are identifying the traps into which we are likely to fall.

Mitchell M. Handelsman Ph.D.
is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in on 23 February 2017 

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