Many of the issues that coaches and mentors encounter can be classified as ethical dilemmas. These occur when a person either feels that they are being asked to do things that are against their moral values, or when they have a conflict between two or more of their own values. An example of the former would be where someone working in a pharmaceutical company is asked to consent to overcharging a hospital. An example of the latter would be where a doctor is conflicted between duty to colleagues and duty of care to the patients.
The key to working through such issues is a six-step process. The steps are:
- Articulate the problem
- Consider the context
- Consider the implications
- What other opinions/perspectives may be relevant?
- Balance the arguments
- The final check
Articulate the problem
This step is vital, because the person may not have had time to think the issue through on their own, or may be avoiding doing so, because the conflict is too painful. It’s common to rationalise away the conflict, in the hopes that the discomfort will fade. The starting point for the coachee or mentee is often therefore that they are deeply confused. They may not understand the consequences of their behaviour/decisions. The unethical behaviour may appear to be the norm in this organisation and they may feel that they are the one out of step.
In helping them understand and describe the issue, we can ask questions such as:
- Who does it affect, how and why?
- What is the nature of the conflict of interest?
- What specific personal, organisational and/or societal values are involved?
- What are the conflicts that you feel within yourself? (What is making you feel uncomfortable?)
Consider the context
Here we try to understand the scope of the issue and the environment, in which it takes place, using questions such as:
- Who is involved, directly and indirectly?
- Is this a new issue, or an old one in a new guise?
- What are your specific and general responsibilities?
- Who has been consulted?
- Who needs to be consulted?
- Is there a relevant code of conduct or guideline?
- What is the general ethical climate here?
Consider the implications
Now we can begin to explore what will or is likely to happen as a result of following one path or another. Very often, the person’s attention is focused on the small picture and the short-term. By widening their view and looking to the longer term, we begin to create a different perspective:
- What risks are involved? (Safety, financial, reputational etc)
- What precedents may be set by this decision?
- What would be the impact if this were done on a much larger scale?
- Would the implications be different if this were played out publicly vs privately
What other options or perspective may be relevant?
Here we are widening the perspective even further, using questions such as:
- What might you be avoiding acknowledging?
- Who might provide a robust challenge to your thinking?
- How can you make other people feel more comfortable about speaking up?
- Have you genuinely sought and listened to dissenting views?
A useful approach here is to explore the issue from the perspective of people, who are affected by it. “Walking in someone else’s shoes” helps us appreciate how they might feel – and how we might feel in their place.
Balance the arguments
By now, the issue will have become both more complex (in the sense that there is a lot more information to consider) and simpler — because the choices, while they may be finely balanced, are much clearer. We can make a choice about what is the right thing to do by comparing choices both rationally and emotionally. We realise that no decision is going to be purely right or wrong, but that an ethical decision is one that tries to achieve a fair and compassionate balance. Useful questions include:
- What would an impartial adviser see as fair?
- What priorities should we apply to conflicting objectives and values?
- What are the “zones of ethical acceptability” and what lies outside them?
The final check
This last step is equally important, but easy to miss out, because it requires an extra burst of energy and self-honesty at the end of what is likely to have been a gruelling and painful conversation. Useful questions we can ask include:
- What decision-making biases might you be applying without realising?
- How honest are you being with yourself? (How pure are your motives?)
- Do you truly feel this is the right thing to do?
- If we were to give this issue more time, would we come to a different conclusion?
Implementing the decision about the most ethical way forward poses its own problems. When someone takes an ethical stance, the reaction of other people is often very negative, because now their integrity is being questioned. The instinctive responses are fear and resentment. So the coach or mentor may also need to help the other person develop a strategy for helping others overcome their instinctive hostility and engage in open, considerate dialogue.
The key to this stage is to focus on values and on people’s sense of their ideal selves. The coachee or mentee can engage with peer or more senior colleagues by asking them to confirm the values that they and the organisation espouse and try to live up to. Helping them to work out where the organisation might not be living up to its values is less likely to evoke the sense of personal threat. And discussing how they collectively might be able to live up to the organisational values and their personal values more consistently and more thoroughly is still relatively unthreatening. But from that point it is a lot easier to focus on specific behaviours or policies, which need to be changed.
This softly, softly approach won’t always work. Sometimes blowing the whistle is the only recourse. However, the coach or mentor can be a great support in working out tactics, giving encouragement and rehearsing difficult conversations.