Many decision-making frameworks aim to help leaders use objective information to mitigate bias, operate under time pressure, or leverage data. But these frameworks tend to fall short when it comes to decisions based on subjective information sources that suggest conflicting courses of action. And most complex decisions fall into this category.
Specifically, every complex leadership decision must balance three subjective dimensions:
- Ethics, or context-specific principles around what is acceptable in your organization or society.
- Morals, or your own internal sense of what is right and wrong, shaped by upbringing, family, community, identity, faith, etc.
- Role responsibilities, or your understanding of the responsibilities associated with your role in the organization.
Unsurprisingly, these considerations often come into conflict. When this happens, there are no easy answers — but by carefully interrogating these three dimensions, leaders can move forward with confidence that the decisions they make reflect the best possible balance among their different principles.
Consider a CEO facing the decision of whether or not to lay off employees during a recession. Filtered through the lens of morality, she might feel that taking away an individual’s livelihood in such a hard time would be immoral. Ethics, however, demand that leaders weigh the tradeoff between the wellbeing of a smaller number of individuals and the potential for risk to the entire organization. And if she believes her role requires her to protect the interests of as many of the organization’s key stakeholders as possible — including shareholders, employees, customers, and community members — then she may conclude that her job demands that she lay off employees to protect the majority of the organization. This suggests that the requirements of her role align with her ethics but conflict with her personal morality. This simplifies the decision down to a choice between 1) attempting to persuade key stakeholders to align the expectations of her role with her personal morality; or 2) sacrificing her individual views for the greater good.
Adding further complexity to difficult decisions like this one is the fact that none of the three dimensions are static. As recently as 2014, for example, an apolitical approach was broadly perceived as the right ethical framework for leaders; today, many employees and consumers demand that leaders take a strong stance on social issues. Leaders must continuously update their understanding of the ethical framework demanded by their current context.
Staying abreast of these ethical shifts — and understanding the rationales behind them — may inspire leaders to investigate and adapt their own views accordingly as well. In particular, surrounding yourself with a diverse team that elicits different perspectives based on different experiences, values, or education will help you to continuously refine your own moral code.
Finally, your role (and your understanding of that role) is likely to change many times over the course of your career. Are you obligated to all stakeholders equally? What results do different stakeholders expect and whose expectations are most important? Should employees, customers, and communities be treated with the same regard as owners and investors? These are all questions that will have to be evaluated and reevaluated as your roles evolves.
Learning to recognize and balance these dynamic priorities is key to leading with integrity. There aren’t any shortcuts, but actively investigating your own values and seeking — or driving — alignment between at least two of the three corners of the morals-ethics-role triangle will give you the tools you need to make the difficult decisions that all leaders face. Below, I offer five sets of questions to ask yourself that will help you better understand, develop, and articulate your ethical, moral, and role responsibilities.