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We may not be as rational as we think when it comes to facing ethical dilemmas.

While it’s tempting to believe that we are all budding Platos when we consider ethical questions, new research by Scott Sonenshein of Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management, appearing in the October issue of The Academy of Management Review, indicates that a very different dynamic — one characterized by instantaneous intuitive decisions only later justified by reason — may be in play.
 
There’s a large body of research that says when people are faced with an ethical dilemma in the workplace, they take their time and apply reason to come up with an appropriate response. This widely held rationalist explanation of behavior is deficient, according to new research by Scott Sonenshein, an assistant professor at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management. Sonenshein’s research instead proposes a sensemaking-intuition model (SIM), which says that people first apply intuition to answer ethical questions and then use reason to justify their decisions.
 

Q: Why do so-called “rationalist” approaches inadequately explain how people respond to ethical situations at work?
A: Rationalist approaches privilege reason. Most of the past academic literature focuses on models that assume people are very deliberate and pensive thinkers about ethical issues. It’s the philosophers-as-management approach.
 
Q: Your research takes aim at these approaches. Why?
A:
I don’t feel that this is the way people truly behave. Rationalist models have dominated the discussion, and I saw an opportunity to bring in more recent research on sensemaking and social and psychological processes that could really enliven the debate. These rationalist models are so ingrained in everything that we do as researchers and practitioners. But what if this model is not really explaining how people actually behave?
 
Q: You propose what’s called a sensemaking-intuition model. It still involves the use of reason but only in justifying a gut decision, right?
A:
What happens is that people use their reason, but only after they make an intuitive judgment about an issue. Then they use reason to justify that intuition. It’s not that people aren’t using moral reasoning; it’s that they use it after they’ve decided on that moral problem or dilemma.
 
Q: Can you give an example to illustrate this?
A:
We can use something outside ethics to ground it. Imagine that you are about to buy a house. One thing that happens when people buy homes is they come up with a list of pros and cons: I really like the location, the floor plan is great, but the neighbors are terrible, and it’s an old house that needs renovation. My model says that you’re going to have an instant reaction, an intuition about whether or not the house is right or wrong, and then you use that cost-benefit analysis as a way to make sense of that intuition. I would argue that you make up your mind and then you search for a way to justify how you’ve made up your mind, as opposed to a rationalist approach, which would say that you are using the cost-benefit analysis to make the decision in the first place.
 
Q: The SIM includes a number of phases. Can you explain the first phase, issue construction?
A:
Issue construction is really about how individuals give meaning or come up with stories to explain what is going on in their environment. But the environment has equivocality and uncertainty. Equivocality means there are multiple potential interpretations, and uncertainty refers to the difficulty of coming up with any type of meaning. Both are subsets of ambiguity. As ambiguity increases, individuals have a lot more latitude in how they interpret things. Social psychology teaches us that a lot of the ways people construct these interpretations will be based on their expectations and motivations. Are they expecting to face an ethical issue or not? If they’re not, they will probably fail to see any underlying ethical issues.
 
Q: What about phase two, intuitive judgment?
A:
What happens is you draw an intuition from how you constructed the situation. So remember, you constructed the situation based on your expectations and motivations. You have this construction and you have this snap reaction, and it is an automatic and quick reaction influenced largely by affect. Affect is a gut feeling about whether something feels right or wrong, good or bad.
 
Q: What are the practical workplace implications of this research?
A:
We should shift our focus away from rational analysis. The SIM proposes that rational analysis such as cost-benefit models are used to justify, rather than influence, a judgment about an ethical issue. Instead of always privileging rational decision making at work, which masks how individuals actually respond to many ethical issues, we should cultivate managers’ abilities to directly use intuition to resolve ethical issues.
 
Q: How can that be done?
A:
We know that intuitions develop from experience. We should focus on creating a work environment that privileges and allows for the discussion of experiences in dealing with ethical issues. Another recommendation is to rethink training around ethical issues. This means spending time putting managers through realistic situations where they don’t have hours and hours to contemplate an issue. Give them a short amount of time to make a snap judgment, and over time help train their intuitions so that they begin to see the ethical implications of their actions.

 

If you go back to the construction phase, one factor that affects how people construct the issue is their expectations. We need to ingrain in management practice the expectation that ethical criteria are lurking in a lot of “business” issues. The problem is that management educators contribute to mis-setting expectations. They are quick to silo different disciplines, such that you have a finance decision, a marketing decision, etc. But these are all management decisions that cannot be cordoned off from their underlying ethical issues. The fact is that many business decisions involve changing the distribution of relative benefits and harms to an organization’s stakeholders. By changing managers’ expectations about where they are likely to encounter an ethical issue (the answer is in most places), we will go a long way in helping managers make quick, instant judgments that will more likely lead to ethical behavior.
 
For more information, contact Scott Sonenshein at scotts@rice.edu or Laura Hubbard of the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management at lhubbard@rice.edu.