This is the second of a three part discussion of ethics in education and school reform. The next  blog will discuss ethics and data and information.

You can’t pick up a professional magazine these days without bumping into the words “collaboration” or “data-based” decision-making.  These approaches are offered  to improve decision-making, get “buy-in” from people, and solve problems.

A naïve view persists that all a leader needs to do is collect “data” and put people together to make a decision and everything will be all right.  Participation, data, and collaboration are offered as a panacea.  But there are problems. Real problems.

A major issue is: how can you be assured that those decentralized, participative decisions are appropriate and on target?  Are they ethical? Some ethical pitfalls revolve around the group process itself. 

One pitfall is self-protection.  Individuals, driven by the need for approval, are concerned primarily with themselves – their advancement, acceptance or ego.  Looking good is the goal.  They “pass the buck” or tell people what they want to hear, and “slick over” information by putting it into the best or most positive light in order to win favor.

Self-righteousness is another trap.  There’s a difference between passion and self- righteousness.  Certainly, enthusiasm is a positive force.  But organizational zealots, who are convinced of the rightness of their cause, will go to almost any means to push it.  Remember Machiavelli’s dictum?  The means justifies the end.   That rings true here because these people are convinced that the nobility of their cause justifies even questionable methods. Honor, truth, integrity, and principles become victims as people, procedures and data are abused.

Self-deception can be a by-product of compromise.  Individuals must accommodate and compromise in collaborative efforts.  This is inevitable in shared decision-making.  But it is the nature of the compromise that concerns ethics.  Some people get in trouble because they go along with the group even if principles are compromised.  For example, individuals  may ditch their ethical principles to push a questionable agenda of the boss, team, or program.  The self-deception is that ethics had to be superseded by the “corporate” agenda. In these situations, the “best face” is put on the circumstances and people excuse these indiscretions in the name of progress and the cynical “realities” of the world.

Self-protection, self-righteousness, and self-deception are powerful hidden influences on individuals’ decisions and actions.  Collaborative work groups can trigger them because of the very dynamics of group work.  All you have to do is watch people’s behavior in groups to see the potential problems.

Collaborative work groups have many advantages and more school systems are understanding the potential of teams.  But “group shift” is an ethical problem facing work groups.  It occurs when individuals do not question fundamental assumptions or challenge the substance of collective decisions.  They go along with the group because they fear standing alone, going against the grain, and challenging colleagues, particularly about something as abstract as the ethical consequences of actions.

Professionals do not duck responsibility.  There are standards against which behavior, decisions, and procedures are “audited”.  There are also ethical standards that can be used to “audit” team or participative operations.  Professionals in group or delegated work have and obligation to:

  • Be accountable for their own actions and for the individual actions they initiate at the direction of others.  Following orders does not lessen individual responsibility.
  • Understand that inaction, like overt conduct, can result in unethical behavior.  To stand and do nothing is not always a benign act.  Inaction can be detrimental. 
  • Accept responsibility for their subordinates, peers or others if they encourage them to behave unethically.
  • Assume responsibility for their own actions when they are part of a group.  They must counter “group think” or going along with the crowd if ethical standards are compromised.

Giving people discretion and autonomy are good ideas.  Sometimes, two or more heads are better than one.  But to ensure principled decisions and behavior, individuals need ethical principles to guide them.  Ethics are invisible structures that are powerful and self-monitoring, if they are clear and understood.

Shared decision-making  can be creative, exciting, and innovative because it can generate commitment.  But collaboration also carries ethical responsibilities for the decisions and results of collective behavior.  We need to think about that.