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Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
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43. A problem shared is a problem halved:
Organizations enter the danger zone when dilemmas cannot be discussed, but are dismissed
as a sign of weakness, lack of independence and indecision, as a cause of delay, vagueness,
and discord. It is black or white; there is no space for shades of grey. ‘As an organization we
should keep things clear and simple,’ so the thinking goes. However, going over complex
questions together can be advantageous. This is shown in a study carried out by Kurt Lewin,
one of the founders of social psychology, in the 1940s.
Lewin wanted to know how a change in eating pattern could best be implemented. He
compared the effectiveness of lectures and group discussions. In both cases the same
information was communicated regarding the importance of the new eating pattern and
practical guidance for preparing meals. The only difference was that people in the discussion
groups had the chance to discuss the pros and cons of the diet. Lewin noted that the effect
of the lectures was quite limited, whereas the discussion groups worked much better.
Furthermore the effect of the discussion groups did not wane with time, whereas that of
the lectures faded. In the discussion groups participation appeared more effective than
individual instructions. This excluded the possibility that the effect was caused by the amount
of attention each person received. Lewin concluded that the opportunity to discuss norms
and goals in a group was a critical factor in achieving the desired behavior.
Other studies have also demonstrated the importance of communal discussions to, for
example, saving energy or combating theft at work.The important thing is always face-to-face
interaction with people who serve as reference points, such as friends, neighbors, colleagues,
or managers. All these indings support communication theory, which states that people learn
from one another by discussing issues: they come to a better understanding of one another
and their environment, and are more motivated to live up to expectations and comply with
mutually agreed terms.
Dilemmas are situations in which those involved are unclear about what is expected of them.
There are pros and cons: ‘As an employee can I take surplus goods home? It’s a waste to
43. A problem shared is a problem halved: communication theory