Q: During a private conversation with a friend who works in my industry, I learned some confidential information about an impending event that will put my small company at great risk of considerable loss if it reaches agreement in an ongoing negotiation with another small company. What should I do?
A: In negotiation, we regularly face ethical challenges that involve tradeoffs between competing moral values or principles. For instance, your dilemma presents two possible courses of action. First, you could disclose the information to higher-ups in your company to try to prevent the loss. In so doing, however, you would breach the confidentiality and loyalty of a friend. Second, you could uphold your commitment to confidentiality by remaining silent. In this case, however, you would risk tremendous damage to your employer.
In this type of moral dilemma, choosing one value seems to necessitate forgoing the other, leaving you with no obvious “right” answer.
When encountering difficult ethical challenges, we generally ask ourselves the Socratic question “What should I do?” This “should” mind-set encourages us to analytically weigh the vying moral claims against each other.
In new research, my Harvard Business School colleagues Ting Zhang, Joshua Margolis, and I found a way to encourage a more expansive exploration of possible solutions. Specifically, we found that considering what one could—rather than should—do shifts the analysis from seemingly fixed and mutually exclusive alternatives to generating options that might reconcile underlying interests.
For instance, in one experiment, we asked participants to contemplate four ethical dilemmas. We randomly assigned them to answer the question “What could you do?” “What should you do?” or “What would you do?” for each dilemma. We found that contemplating “coulds” helped participants perceive different objectives in ethical dilemmas as less incompatible relative to contemplating either “shoulds” or “woulds.”
As it turns out, approaching ethical dilemmas with a “could” mind-set increases our likelihood of generating moral insight. Moral insight involves the realization that one doesn’t necessarily have to concede one set of moral imperatives for another to resolve an ethical dilemma. It also entails generating solutions that allow both competing imperatives to be met.
In another study, we had participants adopt either a “could” or “should” mind-set while contemplating ethical dilemmas. We found that relative to those in a “should” mind-set, “could” thinkers generated many more possible solutions as they contemplated the ethical dilemmas. Consequently, when asked what they “would” do, the “could” thinkers were better able to generate more morally insightful solutions that did not simply select one side of the dilemmas at the expense of the other.
So, getting back to your situation, I advise you to change your question from “What should I do?” to “What could I do?” This framing may inspire a fresh approach to the dilemma. For example, you might choose to talk to your friend and see if he or she could give you permission to share the information with people in your organization. Or you might attempt to obtain the information through other channels first, before talking to higher-ups in your company. Simply rephrasing the question may lead you to explore a wider range of possible options and formulate a more satisfactory solution.
Professor of Business Administration
Harvard Business School
Author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan
(Harvard Business Review Press, 2013)
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