8 steps to walking the tight rope of an ethical dilemma

An ethical dilemma is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two courses of action, either of which entails transgressing a moral principle.” In other words, ethical dilemmas are thorny, complex problems that have more than one “right” and defendable solution.

How might one proceed toward a decision that is both sound in logic (“head”), and one that allows the decision-maker to feel good about the course of action (“heart”). Here’s a process for your consideration:

Step 1: Get the facts

  • Collect all the available dispassionate information you need to feel fully informed on the issue. (This can take the form of facts, data, general information, futures modeling, market reports, etc. Exhaust all available resources to ensure you are fully informed and educated on the various components of the situation.)

Step 2: Wisdom of crowds

  • What can disinterested people offer as advice, thoughts, or differing perspectives? (These are people who have no skin in the game other than helping you in your decision-making; choose people who bring some expertise to the situation. Organize their contributions into key take-aways.)

Step 3: Cost-benefit analysis

  • Conduct a simple cost/benefit analysis for each course of action. Use these analyses as additional data points. (Warning: only use this exercise as a way to generate additional data. Sometimes the course of action with the greatest benefits and the least costs can prove over time to have been the wrong decision (as it’s a very narrow way of framing a dilemma).)

Step 4: Bias check

  • Is there anything tainting the decision-making process, which may create blind spots in your decision-making? Conduct an audit on the following considerations:

Step 5: Reality check

  • Confront the “brutal facts” (Jim Collins) of the situation. Conduct an audit on the following considerations:

Step 6: Core values & Mission/Vision check

  • Ensure the remaining (viable) courses of action stand up against the institution’s core values. (i.e. ensure the courses of action can be supported on ethical grounds)

Step 7: Go time!

  • You have all the information analyzed and synthesized. You have organized all the opinions into threads. You have viable courses of action that have passed your audits. Now go up to the proverbial mountain and boldly make your choice. (Personally, I give myself as much time as I need until I gain insight. This might happen on a long walk, or simply sitting alone in silence. The key is to create the time and space for the insight to arrive.)

Step 8: Move on

  • Get a good night’s sleep, communicate and manage the course of action, and move on to other things. (Make a note to write a case study in one year’s time.)



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Paul Richards

Paul Richards


Having some fun blogging, taking the writing seriously, but not myself.