Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Teaching Businesspeople How to Do What They Ethically Ought to Do

Our local Providence Journal just ran a commentary by Mary Gentile on teaching ethics to business students that seems particularly relevant to Health Care Renewal, since businesspeople, not health care professionals, now run most large health care organizations (see recent post here).

THE FALLOUT from 34 MBA students at Duke University having been caught cheating on an exam recently has put business education in the limelight once again. Business education hasn’t received this much attention since Enron and WorldCom.

But the criticism and rebuttals have focused once more on whether business ethics can or should be taught. Instead, we should focus on teaching business students who already recognize right from wrong how to act on those values in the business world.

Business-ethics courses spend a lot of time teaching ethical theories and analyzing those big, thorny ethical dilemmas....

Rather than viewing ethics courses as a way to 'fix' unethical students, let’s focus on the majority of students who want to act on their values but are not at all convinced that it’s feasible to do so. In their survey of MBA students several years ago, the Aspen Institute found that the majority believed that they would be asked to do things in their careers that would conflict with their values; that this conflict would be stressful for them; and that they didn’t feel equipped to deal with that choice when it arose. These are not students who don’t recognize ethical choices. They are not even people who don’t want to do the ethical thing. In many cases, they simply don’t know how to do it effectively.

For some, 'effectiveness' may mean that they are not systematically disadvantaged for taking their stand. In the case of those MBAs who cheated on their exam, often the excuse is: 'Everyone is doing it so why should I be disadvantaged in the grading curve by not cheating?'

And for others 'effectiveness' may mean doing the 'right' thing in such a way that it makes a positive difference; that is, they don’t want to take a stand (and perhaps take a hit) against 'cooking the books' if someone else is just going to walk in and do it anyway. For both of these groups, ethics discussions need to be less about what’s right and more about how to change the system, whether that means building a coalition of peers or convincing one’s boss (or professor) that there is a better approach.

And some just don’t have any idea what to say when the boss tells them to adjust their financial analysis before sending it to the client, or when team mates ask them to shift reported expenses from one quarter to the next in order to improve the numbers. They know it doesn’t feel right but it seems to be the norm and they don’t have a script at the ready to use, to slow down the action, to open the conversation, to make room for others to express their concerns, too, if they share them.

In research we conducted for a new curriculum, 'Giving Voice to Values,' sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Yale School of Management, we have learned five important things:

Many ethical choices are not really 'dilemmas.' That is, many times the 'right' decision is rather clear.

• Pretty much everybody has stories of times when they have, in fact, voiced and acted on their values, as well as stories of times when they have not. That is, we all have the ability to do both; most of the time, we are not talking about 'good' people or 'bad' people.

We can learn to voice our values more frequently and effectively if we understand the different factors that enable each of us to do so. That is, for some it may be fear of punishment and for others it may be the chance to make a positive difference. And we are more effective when we build on our individual strengths and 'enablers' than when we focus on our weaknesses.

Too often, classroom discussions of ethics spend more time analyzing what the 'right' thing to do is and what the rationalizations are for not doing it, than they do on crafting potential action plans and 'scripts' to respond to those rationalizations. This time allocation should be balanced, if not reversed.

• Instead of asking 'what would you do?' ethical-case discussions should ask the question 'what if I were going to act on my values? What would I do and say? To whom? How? In what sequence?'

In my humble opinion, the key point is that most people know what they ought to do in an ethical sense, but don't know how to go about actually doing it.

The commentary does beg the question about why it is hard for people to do what they ought to do. Clearly, in many organizational cultures, there are incentives and pressures pushing people to do what they ought not to do.

However, at least making people aware of these incentives and pressures, and giving them some suggestions to cope with them would be a step in the right direction.

Let's see if any business schools take this advice.

Parenthetically, I should note that there are few, at best, courses for medical students that address the sort of ethical issues that we discuss on Health Care Renewal. I would suspect that none of them are focused on teaching medical student how to do what they ought to do.

But teaching physicians in training not only how to turn down the free coffee mug with the company logo, but to challenge a culture that that emphasizes bringing in external funding over all else, might go a long way to renewing health care.

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