Unethical bureaucracy

The Post Office Scandal: The Role of the Body in Ethical Decision Making

What can we learn about responsible leadership and ethical decision making from the Post Office scandal? A lot. But listening to Law in Action on Radio 4 on 5th March, I learned how to have compassion for those who end up on the wrong side of the ethical divide.

Warwick Tatford, an independent barrister working on behalf of the Post Office was being examined by the Public Inquiry. He is quoted as saying:

I do feel ashamed about…what’s happened…and the best I can do is try and help the Inquiry and try and learn a bit myself but it’s…well, that’s enough about me. It’s much more important to answer the questions, but I’m sorry. I feel ashamed that I was part of this. But I want to try and help if I can.

Later as the Inquiry examines him further he says:

It’s been quite a demanding exercise to do a witness statement to go through matters. I found that’s clarified my mind as to as to what happened and when I said I felt ashamed, I do. And I actually feel worse because it’s become quite clear in the way the evidence is probably put before me that there are many failings that I had I had ignored on my part. And I perhaps created a rosier vision within my memory that wasn’t really there. I apologize unreservedly.

Professor Richard Moorhead Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at Exeter comments on Tatford’s admission.

He’d (Warwick Tatford) had a chance to prepare for that hearing. He’d had most of the papers, and he would have known that some of these questions would have been coming or he ought to have known and he doesn’t appear to have thought deeply enough about what it was that he might be thought to have done wrong…There are variations on that theme in many of the lawyers before the inquiry.

Ethical decision making

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Ethical decision making and the role of the body

Welcome to the world of being human! Listening to Warwick, I felt deep compassion for him. It felt like he was a decent man. But he lost awareness. He was asleep. He was not conscious of what was driving his behaviour and decision-making.

One way he could have avoided making those mistakes is by tuning into the body. We all know this. We face a dilemma. Our self-interest suggests that we should choose one thing but deep inside there’s a niggly feeling in our gut or maybe our heart that is telling us the right thing to do. We have all felt this. And, shockingly, we have all buried it. That’s what human beings do.

Early in my career I spent time working on a trading floor of a large global bank (long story!). I conducted some research into ‘what makes a good trader’. What I found was that bad or mediocre traders ignored or buried information that suggested their ‘position’ was wrong. Outstanding traders however, listened to the bodily signals suggesting they were wrong and then acted on that information. It was astonishing that if a mediocre trader was ‘long’ on dollars they would interpret irrelevant news to support their position (e.g. the Queen of England visited the President of the United States is great for the dollar!). But when important news came that suggested they might be wrong, they would avoid it (e.g. the US trade deficit was predicted to worsen). What differentiated the outstanding traders was that they would be prepared to experience the horrible feelings when they realised they were wrong (feeling sick, fear, anxiety, a hole in pit of the stomach) and, having felt them and processed them, they then acted on them. It was not a pleasant experience but it made them outstanding decision makers.

I realised then that we are all motivated sense-makers and decision-makers. We twist the ‘facts’ to make ourselves feel good – some of us do this more than others. The same goes for ethics. We are motivated to make sense of situations so that we avoid the ‘sicky, scary feelings’ that tell us that we might need to do something that feels difficult but is morally correct.

So the first step to becoming a responsible leader is to listen to our body. What is it telling us about what is good as opposed to what serves our egoic interests?

I can think of an example of when I followed my ego and another example of when I didn’t. To be honest, all the times I followed my ego I betrayed myself…going into the wrong job, leading people through fear and making myself small. The times when I followed my conscience are seared into my memory. They were times when I felt most myself.

Let’s just say, its bloody difficult being ethical. I feel for you Warwick!

About the Author: Karen Blakeley

Karen Blakeley

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