In the seventh chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul narrates the inner ethical conflict with which those who sincerely desire to please God wrestle. Here, he describes the almost palpable mental anguish of one who knows right from wrong but cannot quite seem to align right knowledge with right action. In exasperation, he declares, “What a miserable person I am! Who will save me from this body that brings me death?” (Rom. 7:24, Easy-to-Read Version). Followers of Christ know the struggle all too well between the righteous requirements of God’s law versus the passions aroused by our sin and flesh. We may truly desire to obey God’s law joyfully. Any yet, Paul asks the question that, if we are honest, we are all asking: “Does this mean that something that is good brought death to me?” (Rom. 7:13).
With rhetorical brilliance, Paul captured the essence of ethical struggles: we have desires in conflict. In their book “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About it,” business professors and authors Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel ponder why most people claim to be more ethical than their behaviors or decisions often reveal. They refer to this phenomenon as “bounded awareness.” It is the systematic failure to see or assign appropriate weight to the relevant information necessary to fully comprehend the moral implications of our behaviors or decisions.
In their analysis, Bazerman and Tenbrunsel call attention to two ways in which people make decisions. System 1 thinking is intuitive, emotional, and precognitive. Because of its efficiency, System 1 thinking is best suited to the myriad of decisions we make daily. For example, I take the same route to work every day without variation. This habit saves me time and energy because I don’t have to reconstruct my route to work every morning before I leave my house. On the other hand, System 2 thinking is slower, deliberate, rational and best applied to more significant and consequential decisions. It would apply to such decisions as which career I will choose, who I will marry, where I will live, or other major decisions with potential to alter the trajectory of my life.
Both kinds of thinking are necessary for successful decision-making and human functioning. But often, decisions made with System 1 thinking are vastly different than what they would have been had more time been given for System 2 reflection. Without an appropriate self-awareness of the blind spots in our ethical reasoning, many ethical decisions are made using System 1 thinking alone. Unfortunately, System 1 think tends to favor more self-centered interests and biases.
While modern ethical training has focused on different rational bases for ethical decision making, much of it has overlooked the substantial role that human desire plays in ethical decision making. Philosopher James K. A. Smith, in fact, argues that “we are what we love” and that our desires shape the trajectory of our lives – our goals, our pursuits, our choices, and the kind of people we will become. Our decisions and behaviors more frequently emerge from the desires embedded in our hearts than from rationally construed ethical principles or codes of conduct. Essentially, we live out these desires as an embodied story of what we imagine as a good and flourishing life. Consequently, forming the ethical intelligence of employees in 21st century organizations will demand engagement with the culturally-derived dynamics that generate stories, rather than policies, as the foundation of ethical decision-making.
Two Ways of Thinking: Reason and Emotion
One of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment beginning in the 17th century was a positivism that asserted truth could be derived through empirical evidence and rational skepticism. Any assertion of truth could only be verified through the scrutiny of human reason upon observable phenomenon. N. T. Wright comments in his book Scripture and the Authority of God that reason became the source of objective truth which could sustain a vision of progress. Such progress was unleashed by unlocking human potential in both science and technology and by casting off the fears and superstitions of religious and theological thought worlds. The question of God became irrelevant to the greater good of society, culture, politics, and human flourishing. God was consigned to the periphery of private religious experience or potential use merely for the moral functioning of people in society. With the shackles of deeper religious obligations broken, men and women became free to discover their inherent goodness and compose an ethical character by virtue of their unrestrained rationality.
Modern philosophical bases for ethical decision-making follow Enlightenment’s optimism in human reasoning. For the past two centuries, the two most persuasive strands of thought upon Western conversations of ethics have been consequentialist ethics (especially utilitarianism) and deontology. Utilitarianism contends that the moral goodness of any action is derived by the benefits it produces for the most people. On the other hand, taking the lead from German philosopher Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperatives, deontology focuses on action itself and ascribes its moral goodness by its conformity to rationally discerned universal principles of right or wrong. Both standards, however, presume the decision-maker’s capacity to reasonably evaluate the action’s rightness based upon either of these philosophical bases prior to engagement with the action.
While postmodernism has challenged many assumptions of Enlightenment thinking, belief in the rational capacity of individuals to make appropriate ethical decisions persists in the cultural waters in which the ethical dialogue of organizations occurs. Ethics training often focuses on the consideration of case statements or implementation of policies that are heralded as deterrents or fences around employees’ ethical behaviors. However, as Bazerman and Tenbrunsel have argued, such training fails to encourage ethical behavior because it does not reflect how people actually make ethical decisions. Resonating with System 1 and System 2 thinking, Daniel Goleman, in his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, acknowledges that we have two minds, the rational mind and the emotional mind each controlled by different regions of the brain. Under normal conditions, these two minds function in an integrated harmony that allows us to navigate the varied contours of life successfully.
But when the brain perceives emotionally laden stimuli, the amygdala, the brain’s emotional memory storehouse that allows us to gauge the emotional significance of events, takes over and directs more of the body’s resources away from rational thought and toward fight, flight, or freeze reactions. In these moments, the harmony of the rational and emotional faculties of the brain disintegrate in order to poise the person for any action necessary for self-protection and survival. This disintegrated thinking impairs ethical decision-making until such time as the brain’s slower, deliberate rational processing faculty can catch up and reintegrate with the emotional mind. Only when that harmony is re-established can a person make emotionally intelligent decisions. This implies that, while individuals may rationally affirm the ethically appropriate responses toward the case statements or policies in training, their thinking in an evocative moment may be disintegrated and focused on self-preservation. They are temporarily incapable of the higher deliberation necessary to respond consistently with their espoused ethical values.
Reintegration as Formation
But if ethical situations potentially cause such disintegrated thinking and impaired judgement, how may organizational leaders encourage employees to make good choices in the heat of ethical maelstroms? What is important for leaders to know is that these situations present opportunities to mold the ethics of employees and develop their capacity for stronger ethical decision-making. Leaders can guide their employees through a character-forming process that reintegrates their rational and emotional thought worlds toward the harmony that sustains ethical and emotionally intelligent decision-making. This opportunity lies in shaping organizational narratives that shape the desires of employees to live into a story of a compelling and preferable future to which they can contribute meaningfully. Rehearsing and reinforcing these organizational narratives through consistent practices and rituals embed the narrative on the hearts of employees and empowers them to retain harmonized, integrated thinking during ethical decision-making situations.
When people are reacting to emotionally charged situations, they may feel that the situation itself is the direct cause of their emotional state: “What he said made me mad!” or “That late report frustrated me!” Yet, according to the New York Times Best Selling Book Crucial Conversations, people do not react to the situation itself, but to the story they tell themselves consciously or unconsciously regarding that situation. As the brain’s storehouse of emotional memory, the amygdala assigns the emotional meaning to stimuli based upon past experiences. Essentially, a story that gives meaning to situations becomes hardwired into the brain so that when similar situations arise, that story gets played out immediately in their emotional reactions. It happens so quickly that people are not even aware of the story operating under the surface of their reactions. Mastering that story, then, is a critical skill for navigating emotional reactions toward ethically responsible decisions.
According to Martha Montello, author of the article “Narrative Ethics: The Role of Stories in Bioethics” from the Hastings Center Report, a narrational approach to ethics offers a substantively different mindset for ethical decision-making than the consequentialist or deontological philosophies. Whereas these philosophies ask “what” questions with a high regard for rationality as the source of truth, narrative ethics asks “how” questions that identifies the operative story behind the situation and its impact on the organization: “How did this person get into this moral predicament?” and “How can they move forward from here?” More than a simple recounting of history, this approach seeks out how the story developed through the history of the person’s experiences. It explores how that story came to give the current situation such poignant meaning for the person as an ethical dilemma. Montello believes these stories provide people with implicit reasons for their lives. So, when events occur that disrupt or break their stories, people will react in an attempt to restore the integrity of their story, sometimes even by unethical means.
The challenge in ethical leadership is to help employees reintegrate rational and emotional thinking so that their life stories are restored. Often, this means counseling them to revise their stories in order to reconcile the disordering events and recast their life stories accordingly. In the case of ethics, reintegrating emotional and rational thinking in the wake of an ethical dilemma begins with an evaluation of the story that has embedded itself on the employee’s heart and is strongly influencing his or her behavior. By drawing that story to the surface and examining it through safe and respectful dialogue, the leader can help the employee create a self-awareness that leads to the critical reflection necessary to revise the story and build wisdom and resilience in navigating ethical situations in the future.
Ethical Development Through Stories
Narrative can shape character and influence thinking and behaviors. Consider N. T. Wright’s insight into the power of narrative: “A story told with pathos, humor, or drama opens the imagination and invites readers and hearers to imagine themselves in similar situations, offering new insights about God and human beings which enable them then to order their own lives more wisely. Jesus said that what comes out of a heart defiles a person, including evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander (Matt. 5:18-20). He understood that outward actions are the symptoms of inward desires. A person’s ethical decisions and behaviors are the fruit of a story embedded on his or her heart. Ethical training that merely focuses on the mind, such as the intellectual engagement of case statements or the affirmation of policy statements, will ultimately fail to raise up more ethical employees. Rather, wise organizational leaders understand that ethical formation of employees embraces the power of narrative to shape minds and hearts for appropriate ethical decisions and behaviors.
Furthering his assertion that we are what we love, James K. A. Smith proposes that, if indeed people are shaped by the stories embedded on their hearts, habit-forming practices are essential for shaping the imagination and orienting the heart toward an implicit telos, or ultimate hope for a flourishing life. Ethics training crafted as an ongoing rehearsal of organizational stories through habit-forming practices creates a culture in which integrated thinking thrives and aligns hearts and minds toward that ultimate hope. This type of training sustains ethical behaviors among employees because their decisions are aimed at what they love.
Habit-forming rituals shape desires. They constitute the organizational telos for employees by transmitting values, inspiring vision, building teamwork, and embodying norms that orient employees toward a certain ethos. This ethos upholds the organization’s reputation and drives its impact in the community. Celebrations, employee onboarding processes, recitations of vision statements at staff meetings, visual displays that evoke organizational aims or successes, rewarding desired ethical behaviors, and other habit-forming rituals undergird the ethical development of staff by infusing within their life stories an identity with and love for the organization’s aims. In other words, they begin to take a personal stake in the organization’s vision so that its success becomes their personal success.
The complexity of ethical issues faced by organizations in the 21st century demands a fresh look at the development of sustainable ethics by leaders and employees. The former methods that focus on rationally based training will fail to guarantee ethical behavior and decision-making. Organizational leaders must construct a more organic approach, one that acknowledges the complexity of human desiring, thinking, and functioning. By crafting an organizational narrative with the power to integrate employees’ desires and rationality and by embodying those narratives through sustained organizational rituals and practices, leaders will form employees into people who are eager to do what is right because they love what is right.