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Volume 15, Issue 27;   July 8, 2015: Ethical Debate at Work: I

Ethical Debate at Work: I

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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!

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The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate. Available here and by RSS on June 7.

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