Dear Negotiation Coach: Moving From “Should” to “Could” in Difficult Ethical Situations

We often face difficult ethical situations, but shifting our questions may give us more possible solutions to explore.

By on / Negotiation Skills

difficult ethical situations

It’s not unusual to find ourselves in difficult ethical situations, whether in negotiations or in our daily lives. While there’s rarely an easy answer, shifting our mindset can help open up the possible solutions and give us more insight into the issue. We received a question about just such a dilemma.

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?

Reframing the question to deal with difficult ethical situations

A: In negotiation, we regularly face difficult ethical situations 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.

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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 research at Harvard Business School colleagues Francesca Gino, Ting Zhang, and Joshua Margolis found a way to encourage a more expansive exploration of possible solutions. Specifically, they 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, they asked participants to contemplate four ethical dilemmas. Participants were randomly assigned to answer the question “What could you do?” “What should you do?” or “What would you do?” for each dilemma. Researchers 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, the researchers had participants adopt either a “could” or “should” mind-set while contemplating ethical dilemmas. They found that relative to those in a “should” mind-set, “could” thinkers generated many more possible solutions as they contemplated the difficult ethical situations. 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 the original issue, 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.

How have you handled difficult ethical situations? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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