Government | Regulation

Strong ethical frameworks key to decision making in a crisis

Executive Director of The Ethics Centre, Dr Simon Longstaff AO, said at a CEDA livestream event that clear and strong ethical guidelines are vital when making decisions during a crisis. “Leaders have to bring an ethical literacy to bear to explain why they are doing something, not just that they are doing it. Couching decisions explicitly in terms of their values and their principles provides a framework for people to understand the decisions that are being made.”

Dr Longstaff was joined by IAG Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Peter Harmer; and EY Fellow for Trust and Ethics and Honorary Fellow, The University of Melbourne, Clare Payne, to discuss ethical decision making during a crisis on a CEDA livestream event moderated by Company Director Magazine Editor in Chief, Narelle Hooper.

Dr Longstaff began on an optimistic note reminding the audience that while “for all of us, this is a unique experience in terms of our lifetimes, it is important to remember that this is not a unique experience for humanity. We have resources and a depth of understanding that can be drawn upon in our response.”

He then pivoted to discuss the challenges facing leaders in making ethical decisions during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The issue of how we respond today has to be looked at in a much longer time series. There will be an end to this and during the course of this, many people will be driven to make decisions under what they experience as the lash of necessity. They will feel that they have no other choice but to do what they have to do. In some cases that will be true, in other cases they will have had choices, but they will not have seen them as being available when they had to make the decision.

“The most important thing to understand is that at the end of it, when necessity is no longer the driver, there will be many people within an organisation from the leadership right throughout who are going to feel quite wounded by what has happened. Not necessarily because of their own experience but because friends and colleagues may have lost their jobs, they may have become unwell, some of them may even have died during the course of this. They will know that there were some very difficult decisions that had to be made during the height of the crisis.

“When it is all over, they will want to know why? What was the point of this organisation surviving? What was the point of the sacrifices? And it is at that moment that an organisation needs to be able to say, “this is our underlying purpose, these are the values and principles that inform the decisions we make, this is why we survived.”

Dr Longstaff said that decision-makers need to maintain a long-term focus during the crisis.

“You have to make decisions today with a view to the end point from which you wish to emerge. You have to imagine yourself beyond the crisis, restructuring and reconstituting the kind of culture that you want in the future.”

Here Dr Longstaff emphasised the importance of holding to a key principle:

“Make sure that the decisions that you make are adequately explained in terms of your defining purpose, your values and your principles. That is the time when you need to be very explicit about it.”

Elaborating on the importance of a long-term focus, Dr Longstaff reflected on the idea of ‘moral injury’.

“It arises when an individual finds themselves having engaged in acts which violate their own sense of right and wrong. They may have done it without realising it at the time. In fact, most times, people do not recognise the true ethical character of the choices they are making and the actions they are undertaking.

“The second area of potential injury is when people who are used to being certain and used to deploying a particular kind of expertise, even in moments of high stress, find themselves facing the genuine ethical dilemmas that emerge in circumstances like the kind we are now facing.

“An ethical dilemma, by its very nature, arises when values and principles require opposite things. You might be committed to a value in your organisation to do with justice, but you may also be trying to balance it against the survivability of your enterprise. They may seem at times to require mutually opposite things and there may very well be circumstances where that is true.”

He noted that this would not always be easy for leaders to deal with.

“I know people who crave certainty in these circumstances find this very hard to digest. When you are in a leadership position where everyone around you wants simple certainty and you are wrestling with these dilemmas, the sense of potential failure at not being able to provide it can often weigh very heavily on an individual.”

He emphasised that we would not always be able to make the right decisions during the crisis.

“The expectation of ethical perfection in these circumstances is entirely unreasonable. We should not expect it of ourselves and we should not expect it of others. All we can reasonably expect when these things are so finely balanced is that people act in good faith and are sincere. They don’t just rationalise their self-interest which can be the tempting thing to do, but they actually try to do the right thing, the good thing defined by their values and principles,” Dr Longstaff said.

“One of the things we have been trying to do at the Ethics Centre as a practical response to the situation is developing a decision support service… We are bringing online a decision support service, which is the kind of thing you need to draw upon and build upon in these situations so that people don’t have unrealistic expectations and when they have to make difficult decisions the support is available to them.”

Dr Longstaff warned leaders against dismissing ethics as an impractical imposition during a crisis.

“In a crisis it is sometimes tempting to treat ethics as an optional extra. That is comprised of two problems: values that you might have otherwise held have been degraded, or treated as less significant.

“The other thing you have to watch out for is the emergence of what might be called ‘shadow values.’ These shadow values and principles all exist in every organisation, often they are dormant and subtle, but they are driving behaviour and under the critical moment of pressure they may start to become dominant. So, the decisions that are being made by leadership during a crisis of this kind not only have to be good decisions, they don’t have to just be the right things, but they have to be explained in those explicit terms.

Dr Longstaff summed up his thoughts on how to navigate the crisis as a decision maker.

“It is about the clarity of one’s sense of what matters in these cases, which comes from your purpose values and principles. It is about providing the support that people need for making decisions in circumstances where there is no right option to be found, in fact in some cases it may be about choosing the least bad option. It is about leaders having the space to take on some of the burdens that come when everyone is pressing for a quick and clear response when that may not be the best thing.

“It is about providing a realistic set of expectations that do not fuel the possibility of someone suffering moral injury where they have become complicit in making a decision that they don’t agree with. One of the things I don’t want to see at the end of this crisis is people in leadership positions saying, ‘oh if only I had thought about that or taken that factor into account.’

“That means bringing to bear good decision-making processes that are supported. Ultimately it is about having a vision for the future you wish to emerge with you, and making sure that you don’t, through the decisions you make today, foreclose on the integrity and legitimacy of that future once the crisis has ended.”

IAG Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Peter Harmer, agreed with Dr Longstaff and gave some perspective on how ethical considerations have shaped his own decision-making during the crisis.

“Many of the decisions that we have had to make put into conflict the needs of our many stakeholders. This is not a new concept, this is the nature of business generally, but the stakes are a little higher now.”

“The importance of purpose, values and behaviour are key here. It helped us frame our decision making…I think doing that work early in the piece has set us up well.”

EY Fellow for Trust and Ethics and Honorary Fellow, The University of Melbourne, Clare Payne, offered her own thoughts on the role of ethics in crisis decision making.

“I have watched with interest the power of having a framework for making decisions. We have seen the release of these decision-making frameworks across the medical community from doctors in Italy and Spain and England. They have been releasing the frameworks they are using in the face of scarce resources.

“They have guiding principles and how they operationalise in terms of COVID-19. They also have non-negotiables, which is a really important part of ethical decision making. For example, “wealth will not determine whether you receive treatment.” I think that is also an important aspect to good decision making.

She used these insights to reflect on calls from the public health community for the government to release more of the information it was using to make decisions.

“If you have those frameworks you can get more people to understand and trust your decisions.”

The panel reflected on the effect that fear and stress can have on decision making.

“Working from home does create a sense of isolation and intensity,” said Mr Harmer

He spoke about the range of activities that IAG employees have been doing in isolation to increase morale and how the lessons learned through this experience will apply after the crisis.

“We are also starting to think about the learnings that we can take from this experience that will work to the benefit of our people and our customers. And how do we keep a clear line of sight on what we are returning to? Because it won’t be what we left.”

Ms Payne also reflected on the positive aspects of the crisis.

“I think it is bringing about a shift because it forces us to think about acting in the common good. I am positive because I think that humans are good and can be good. This may be a good challenge for us to experience it. It calls on all of us to think about our actions and how they affect other people.”