Trying to solve an ethical dilemma? Start with changing your mindset

Companies wishing to give employees an effective decision-making framework to confront ethical dilemmas now have a new tool in their arsenal. 

Recent findings from researchers Ting Zhang, Francesca Gino [Important context: this author has several publications retracted or under review] and Joshua Margolis provide insight for corporate communications programs as well as middle managers.  In a paper published in the Academy of Management in June 2018, the researchers found that encouraging people to engage in divergent thinking through some simple word-choice interventions helped improve ethical decision-making. 

Specifically, nudging people to think about what they could do in a situation, rather than what they should do, can create a mindset that yields non-binary possibilities for problem solving.

In a series of lab studies, the researchers asked participants to respond to various written ethical dilemmas that could occur in business. One of the scenarios, for example, asked the respondents to consider whether they should hire a candidate for employment who didn’t meet the requirements of the job, but on the flip side, was well connected and could help advance other business goals.

Each scenario prompted the respondent to consider either what they could do to resolve an issue, or what they should do.


Ethical dilemmas often appear as choices between two values that we hold dear.  In the afore-mentioned example, for instance, the choice is between bringing in business for the company, or being fair to job applicants by adhering to merit-based standards.

Many people intuitively consider solving ethical dilemmas with a should mindset, which prompts us to consider what we should do to come up with the right answer.  Drawing from research in creativity and innovation, the study authors hypothesized that treating ethical dilemmas as a design problem would create opportunities to prompt individuals to be more creative in their solutions, and begin to realize that seemingly incompatible values are not necessarily stark trade-offs.  With some creativity, people can find alternative paths to problem solving.

These findings provide new insights and possibilities for corporate ethics training.  So, the next time your company holds a discussion forum to talk about common ethical dilemmas, facilitators can start the discussion with a could prompt.  Opening up more possibilities to find ways for employees to see that profit and purpose are compatible in business can make themselves, and other stakeholders, better off.