Oct 26, 2016 2 min read

The power of a good story for tackling ethical challenges

When I talk with people about the causes of corporate misconduct, I make clear that it rarely happens because of the actions of a bad person doing a bad thing. It is much more often down to a good person making a bad decision. So what does that good person do in such circumstances?

Some will of course pretend that it didn’t happen and hope that it will go unnoticed. That’s a bit like tossing your career into the air, closing your eyes and hoping to still catch it. We all make mistakes from time to time, but ignoring them or tucking them out of sight just compounds the situation.

The US retailer Etsy has such an open culture that whenever one of its people makes a mistake, that person shares what happened in an open internal email, along with ways for others to avoid making that same mistake. Blame is replaced by mutual learning.

That sounds great, and a stage many firms are aiming for, but few have reached. So are there other ways in which firms can encourage their good people to share a bad decision?

One approach I would strongly recommend is a narrative one: take the situation that brought about the bad decision and turn it into a story. Assemble a set of characters, put them into a situation and tell a story about what happened, while giving the reader a choice of endings.

The story can be a fictionalised account of what really happened, but it should be as true to the original situation as possible, to make the lessons being learnt as meaningful as possible. Stories like this are very popular because they are accessible, relevant and realistic. They will ‘strike a cord’ with many readers.

If you’re not really a dab hand at writing stories, there will undoubtedly be someone in your firm who sees themselves as a budding author. Give them the outline of what you’re after and let them bring together the characters, plot and finale. Make sure though that there’s natural dialogue and a choice of realistic endings, for what is being constructed is of course an ethical dilemma.

Such ‘do it yourself’ ethical dilemmas may not have the focus and dialogue that I’ve developed over the years for the dilemmas I write, but they’ll make up for that by ‘speaking to their audience’ with immediacy and relevance. That can count for a lot when it comes to achieving a ‘change of mood’ over how to handle an ethical situation.

I’ll be releasing some guidelines in the New Year on how to write good ethical dilemmas, so watch this space.

Duncan Minty
Duncan Minty
Duncan has been researching and writing about ethics in insurance for over 20 years. As a Chartered Insurance Practitioner, he combines market knowledge with a strong and independent radar on ethics.
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