Oct 9, 2023 3 min read

Using Stories to Engage People in Ethics Training

Ethical risks can at times seem like something we won’t often come into contact with. This makes it difficult to prepare people for how to react when they do come across them. The best way to overcome this problem is through story telling, in the form of tiered ethical dilemmas.

ethical dilemmas
People like stories

A tiered ethical dilemma is one in which events unroll in a series of stages. The choice made at one stage determines the options available at the next stage. They mimic real life in that people can sometimes make a poor initial choice, but then recover some of the situation at the next stage.

The value in using tiered ethical dilemmas is that it helps people not give up at the first stage, when they’ve perhaps made a bad choice. It tells them that the situation may not be over, and that they should go beyond their regrets and seek to address the situation in an ethically pro-active a way as possible.

The problem is that many such ethical dilemmas are presented in too generic a way, lacking the right context to cause learners to really tune in and take notice. This makes it harder for the learner to then act on the information being given. You’re throwing information at them but it’s not sticking.

What makes the information much more likely to stick is some form of emotional dimension to how those events and that wider context are brought together. That’s because that emotional dimension resonates with people, resulting in them forming opinions about the people involved. It is those opinions that helps things stick.

The Emotional Side

Much of what we’re told to do in a business setting is as some form of rational decision making. In other words, we should weigh up the pros and cons in a rational way and come to a sensible decision. In reality, there are of course objective facts that we need to take on board, but these exist in a broader context that always has an emotional element to it. A good ethical dilemma will incorporate both and show how the two can interact.

There’s a variety of writing tools for doing this. There’s ‘show, not tell’, by using dialogue and action to build a picture, not heavy handed descriptions. There’s constraints, in terms of time, resources or who knows what when. Then there’s introducing a compelling or urgent element, so that some form of tension influences responses. Just like in real life.

One technique to avoid is making ethical dilemmas too much of a right/wrong choice. All too often in real life, there’s a good option and a very good option, or two bad options, or two options that are different mixes of good and bad. These are dilemmas after all. With tiered ethical dilemmas, you can evolve these options over several stages and in doing so, they quickly start to resemble real life. Learners think that ‘that could be me’ and so tune in with feelings of both curiosity and compulsion.

Tales, not Textbooks

We are of course talking here of stories. In other words, everyday tales of life full of emotion, ambition and challenge. A good ethical dilemma set over several stages is just another form of chaptered story. Best then for them to be written not as textbooks (‘do this’), but as tales of people just like the ones in your team, working in settings they recognise and involving characters they’ve met before.

My question to insurers at this time of the year goes something along the lines of ‘does your ethical training come across as a textbook or as a tale? Or to put it another way, is it going to stick or not? Are learners going to meet people they recognise, in situations they’ve often wondered if they’ll encounter? Does that training push them to form opinions, make choices and turn these into decisions?

Over the past twenty years, I’ve written hundreds of ethical dilemmas, using a range of characters drawn from my time working in both regional and London markets. The stories are full of conversational dialogue, as well as inner musings. The settings and the central story come from the needs of the client wanting to improve their training resources. Bringing the two together creates learning that is practical and memorable, equipping the person to make a better, more ethical decision next time round.

Get in touch here if you'd like to discuss how tiered ethical dilemmas could enhance your training programme. 
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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