How to Cultivate Ethical Courage

Author: Brooke Deterline, Huffington Post

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Sometimes we only realize our deepest values once we’ve contradicted them.

For Tina, an up-and-coming African-American woman and associate professor at a prestigious private university, one of those moments came just after she had earned a coveted administrative post.

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As one of the most courageous women I know, she’s a perfect example of how easy it is for any of us to betray important values in challenging situations at work. And paradoxically (but not uncommonly), it was Tina’s drive and aspiration to be of service that ended up undermining her.I met Tina at a five-day Multi-Cultural Competence workshop. Tina was the one who skillfully voiced the racial and gender bias that was occurring in the room, most challengingly by the famous founder and facilitator of the workshop.

Tina had pursued that university position because of her deep desire to help students, especially those of color, navigate a new, unfamiliar, and often predominantly white environment.

With one student in particular, Tina says, “I was so excited to help her have a better experience than I and so many other students of color have had.”

Tina was asked by the student to attend an important meeting to help facilitate and provide moral support but was ultimately blocked by…her boss, who said, “It’s not your place in the hierarchy to address this. You have to realize how we do things here if you want to proceed to a permanent administrative role.” (Achieving that status would make Tina the first woman of color in that role, and position her to have much greater influence.)

Tina went along to get along. “I know I didn’t advocate for that student the way I should have. I was worried my actions would negatively impact my ability to move up—I wanted to be seen by others as a ‘worthy’ applicant.”

Sound familiar? Sadly, it happens all the time. And if you have a pulse, something like this has happened to you, and could happen again. But it’s possible to reframe the situation so that we’re less likely to “go along to get along,” and more likely to take courageous action. Below are three ways to stay true to your values and find the courage to stand up for them.

1. Learn your patterns

Four phenomena were working against Tina in this situation: two very common behaviors and two highly destructive structural impediments:

  • When we’re focused on an objective and under pressure, the ethical implications of our acts can easily recede from our attention (“ethical fading”).
  • When organizations bring in new people with fresh ideas and perspectives, and then dictate the way the new people are allowed to engage, they often douse the creativity and passion they’ve said they want to support..
  • We all have a natural human instinct to go along with a group or leader—even if we don’t feel right about it—for a sense of safety, status, and belonging (the “bystander effect”).

That’s the bad news—but there’s good news, too. According to Ann Tenbrunsel, professor of business administration at Notre Dame and research director of the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide, “Our research shows that if you frame your decision to include values, you’re much more likely to act in accordance with them.”

In other words, ask yourself, “What’s the ethical thing to do here?” In Tenbrunsel’s study, participants were more likely to lie and cheat when they framed their decision as a business choice, rather than an ethical problem. Tenbrunsel’s research suggests that an ethical framing greatly increases the probability we’ll act within our values. 

Read the entire story on the Huffington Post website.