In the plague of ethical scandals that splashed across headlines at the beginning of this decade, greedy corporate executives were cast as villainous, self-serving individuals who had made a clear and morally untenable choice between a right option and a wrong option. Both social research and news updates revealed no end to the scandal–and public fury.
The level of public outrage ratcheted up with each new scandal in the corporate world that was revealed, and with good reason; the accused parties had violated many of the most basic aspects of business ethics, social values, and the public trust (Taylor, 2003). Observers were disgusted precisely because they believed that if they had been in the same situation, faced with the same set of options, they would have chosen what was morally right. Although the alternatives and the implications of such situations appear to be clear-cut, the fact of the matter is that employees and managers make hundreds of decisions on a daily basis, large and small, every day; some of these involve an obvious choice between right and wrong, but most involve making a tough call between two or more options that are equally viable and which are expected to carry the same moral weight. In his book, Defining moments, Badaracco (1997) refers to such decisions as a choice between “right versus right” (p. 1). As he explains early on in the book, “Each alternative is the right thing to do, but there is no way to do both” (Badaracco, 1997, p. 1).
Badaracco’s (1997) theoretical notion of what is termed “right versus right” requires that decision-makers move beyond a simple schema for ethical decision-making that relies upon the selection of an alternative based on its obvious positive or negative implications. Instead, to make a decision between two or more options that are equally right, one must look at a more complex array of variables that go beyond this basic decision-making paradigm, including one’s own roles, responsibilities, and relationships within the setting where the decision is being made and who will be affected. Furthermore, one must make a determination about which of the roles, responsibilities, or relationships should ultimately trump the others given the context and anticipated outcome of the situation. Often, the nature of such decision-making situations involves the individual electing a choice that challenges the different aspects of his or her identity, thus making it more complex than simply deciding on the spot whether something is right or wrong. For instance, while one may, in his or her role as an employee, be in possession of information that could be of personal benefit to others within the organization, his or her roles and responsibilities as a manager may require him or her to make the choice to withhold that information. Badaracco (1997) offers a compelling example of this kind of decision-making dilemma when he describes a situation in which a bank employee learns that her branch will be closing, but she is committed by her particular position to withhold that information for a certain period of time. In the meantime, she is asked by colleagues if she knows whether the branch will be closing; there are single mothers and people who really need to look for other jobs if their employment suddenly disappears. The woman feels torn: on the one hand, she feels it is right to reveal the closing information to her colleagues so that they can prepare themselves and their families for a difficult period; on the other hand, she has a professional obligation to withhold the privileged information until management makes a formal announcement.
These sorts of decisions confront employees at all levels of organizational life every day, and are, I think, much more common than the right versus wrong kinds of decisions that are sensationalized by the media. It is not only because they are more common that they are more persistent and difficult to solve; it is because by their very nature they demand that we make a choice that’s not between the lesser of two evils, but between two options that we consider to be of equal merit. The implications of being strong and brave and making a decision between two right options are serious, for in doing one right thing, we leave another right thing undone. Even though we may understand the rationale for our own decisions, we can still feel as if we have betrayed ourselves or someone else.
Although Badaracco (1997) focuses mainly on managers making right versus right decisions, the fact of the matter is that we all are confronted with such dilemmas on a regular basis, both in our personal lives and in our professional lives. Unfortunately, many organizations and corporations do not assist their employees with acquiring the skills and insight that are necessary to be able to make—and, perhaps more importantly, to justify—such decisions, even though they are far more common than right versus wrong dilemmas. The absence of training and support for right versus right decision-making in the contemporary workplace means that individual employees are left to their own devices to sort out the process for making such decisions effectively (Jackson, 2005). Employees who struggle with these types of decision-making can avail themselves of opportunities to learn how to make and live with their right versus right decisions by studying the subject in greater depth. Badaracco’s (1997) book is one place to start, and it is a comprehensive yet concise point of departure. In addition, there is a large and growing body of research and popular literature on the subject of business decision-making.
Once an individual has taught himself or herself some of the critical thinking and decision-making strategies that are necessary to confront such personal and professional dilemmas, one might do well to share such knowledge with colleagues. By creating a space for open and transparent discussion, the challenges of right versus right decision-making can be confronted and shared collectively and the authenticity that comes from knowing oneself will be deepened (Jackson, 2005). By extension, effective decision-makers can begin to create an organizational culture in which a more evolved, elegant, and intelligent framework for making decisions can be promoted, the benefits of which will be likely to extend to society at large (Jackson, 2005).
Badaracco, J.L. (1997). Defining moments: When managers must choose between right and right. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Jackson, K.T. (2005). Towards authenticity: A Sartrean perspective on business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 58(4), 307-325.
Taylor, B. (2003). Corporate governance: The crisis, investors’ losses, and the public trust. Corporate Governance: An International Review, 11(3), 155-163.