Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 27;   July 8, 2015: Ethical Debate at Work: I

Ethical Debate at Work: I

by

When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate.
A Celebes Crested Macaque

A Celebes Crested Macaque. This photo is known as the "monkey selfie" because it was taken by the macaque herself, and thus ruled as ineligible for copyright protection.

Male macaques, like many primates, contend with each other most selfishly for mating rights. If we view the species as being engaged in a collaborative project to improve itself by distributing reproductive rights preferentially, this male competition makes sense. Determining reproductive rights for individuals on the basis of contests among them can indeed improve the species.

Some of the contention between people in modern organizations has an analogous goal: improve the quality of the joint project — in that case, the enterprise. But when the outcome of the contests is determined on a basis unrelated to the improvement of the joint project, it can lead to inferior outcomes. Our competitive behaviors, which trace, in part, to working on the joint project consisting of our species' genes, aren't as effective when the joint project is something more abstract, for which our competitive behaviors are less well suited.

In a more everyday way of speaking, I'd replace "Ethical Debate" in the title of this essay with "Fighting Fair," but the word fighting has baggage. To fight, literally, is to "participate in a violent struggle using weapons or physical blows." In most workplaces, such exchanges are hopefully rare. We often use the term fight to mean debate; to argue — sometimes vehemently — for our respective positions. Weaponry doesn't usually enter the picture.

So when we talk about "fighting fair," we're referring to debating in a style that respects some rules. There aren't many rules, and they're usually unwritten, but one hopes they include things like "no lying," and "no name-calling."

Most people would agree that some behaviors that do occur in workplace debates are toxic: raising voices, stalking out of rooms, slamming doors, abruptly hanging up phones, using all caps in email, and so on. When these things happen, apologies or regrets frequently follow. And so we usually refrain from these actions.

There are other unspoken rules of debate — guidelines, actually — that are less widely recognized, but no less important for organizational health and personal wellbeing. Although some might hold that abiding by these less-widely-recognized guidelines is inadvisable, I've found that groups that do abide by them are happier and achieve higher levels of performance. Here's Part I of a set of suggestions for more ethical debate within your organization.

Share information helpful to your debate partner
Concealing or withholding information that would strengthen your debate partner's position can lead to joint decisions that — while favorable to you — are more likely to be unfavorable for the organization.
If you know something that would strengthen your debate partner's position, offer it. To manage the small risk of seeming condescending, ask permission first: "Hmm, I see what you mean. I think I can make your argument a little stronger. Interested?" If you can't respond effectively when your debate partner has all the facts, your own position might not be as "right" as you believe.
Avoid rhetorical fallacies
Rhetorical fallacies are distracting or logically erroneous verbal artifices that often escape our notice. If you know something that would
strengthen your debate partner's
position, offer it
People tend not to recognize them as illegitimate forms of argument. Some rhetorical fallacies are actually difficult to understand even when their explanations are carefully laid out. An example: "I don't know why we should listen to Chris on this; look at what happened the last time we took her advice." That's an example of an ad hominem attack. It criticizes the person, instead of the person's argument. For more, see Rhetorical Fallacies.
Rhetorical fallacies usually provide advantages to their users, if you count as an advantage "winning" an argument on specious grounds. But in doing so, rhetorical fallacies can cause some or all parties to a debate to come to incorrect conclusions that lead to catastrophically expensive mistakes.

We'll continue next time with a look at some of the more toxic tactics people use.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Ethical Debate at Work: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Prof. Jack Brehm, who developed the theory of psychological reactanceCognitive Biases and Influence: II
Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive biases.
The end of the line for a railroad trackChronic Peer Interrupters: I
When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters?
Multiple clocks, one for each time zoneMastering Messaging for Pandemics: I
When a pandemic rages, face-to-face meetings are largely curtailed. Clarity in text messaging and email communication becomes more important than usual. Citing dates and times unambiguously requires a more rigorous approach than many are accustomed to.
A collection of identical boltsFormulaic Utterances: II
Formulaic utterances are things we say that follow a pre-formed template. They're familiar to all, and have standard uses. "For example" is an example. In the workplace, some of them can be useful for establishing or maintaining dominance and credibility.
A symphony orchestra in actionThe Risks of Rehearsals
Rehearsing a conversation can be constructive. But when we're anxious about it, we can imagine how it would unfold in ways that bias our perceptions. We risk deluding ourselves about possible outcomes, and we might even experience stress unnecessarily.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.