3 ways you can use self-awareness to develop ethical decision-making

I. Two stories of leadership – which one would you rather be known for?

I was at a construction manager’s meeting not so long ago when I heard these two presentations. The vice president of one of the companies got up and spoke to everybody. In a bored voice, he read off the six safety principles which he said were “really important” because the construction Association upheld them and he wouldn’t want anyone to get into trouble for not knowing what they were. Then he made a joke about how in the real world, people cut corners to make more money. Everyone laughed.

The president of the same company then got up to speak. His face was dead serious and his voice intense. He said: “Three days ago, one of our truck drivers hit and killed a six-year-old girl on her way home from school. Our driver was 30 km over the speed limit in a neighbourhood area. Imagine how that family feels knowing they will never see their child again. Imagine the shock that ripples through the school and the neighbourhood and the entire town where we are working on a project. I am ashamed that the death of a child happened in my company’s name and under my watch. There is no excuse for not putting safety before everything including profit. We work safe because it’s about people’s lives. Everyone of us is responsible for this death because we don’t take safety seriously and because we put unimportant things before important things. This is never going to happen again.”

Which leader would you rather follow? Which one will you remember for many years? Although it takes more courage and more risk to stand up for what’s right even in the face of peer pressure, the ethical leader has most immediate impact and the most sustained and lasting effect over time. We are desperate for ethical leadership in the world today. Many years ago, Anne Wilson Schaef wrote that when society becomes an addict we substitute right for wrong, hatred for love, and truth for lies. It appears we are living in that time of societal addiction now.

II. Our actions, products and words are part of what we believe about human nature

A barometer for whether we are acting ethically, is how we treat the children and vulnerable populations most affected by our actions. Ethical leadership would not allow hundreds of children to be separated from their families and put into detention centres where they are neglected and abused. Ethical leadership would not oppress people because of the colour of their skin, their gender, their beliefs. Ethical leadership would not give more privileges to the rich and increasingly take away even basic necessities from the poor. Ethical leadership would not design games and products to be so addictive that children as young as six have already created addiction neural pathways in their brains from using them.

One key false belief that is increasingly plunging our families, organizations and countries into morally bankrupt decisions, is the idea that humanity is naturally aggressive and self-interested. How do we know it is false? Because of all the damage and hurt it is causing! The “religion” of self interest has so permeated our thinking that we no longer see that babies as young as a few months old show love and responsiveness to the people around them and demonstrate regular helpful and altruistic gestures before the age of two.

They also show self-interest and jealously.

What you pay attention to grows and what you continue to say you eventually believe. Click To Tweet

If we only pay attention when things are hurtful or self-interested saying “that’s just the way it is” we cannot progress. Human beings are infinitely creative, capable, and enjoy helping each other. Evidence of this is widespread and you will see it daily around you if you are looking for it.

III. Why we miss what is right in front of our noses

For the past three weeks, I’ve been looking for a large photograph that used to hang on one of our kitchen walls. I looked everywhere around the house and could only concluded that it must have been lost. Today my husband found it quite by accident. Since we have been renovating the kitchen, a pile of smaller photographs and other things to be put away later sat on a table.

Everything sat top of the large photograph we were seeking. Because the photograph was turned over, its frame resembled a large tray. We did not see the large photograph that was immediately in front of us simply because we didn’t know how to recognize it in a new context. The truck driver in the leadership story earlier didn’t see the little girl in front of his truck, and people who are not suffering don’t feel the suffering of those they don’t see immediately in front of them.

IV. Three simple practices of self-awareness to lead to ethical decision making

There are several ways to overcome this habit of seeing humanity only in a negative light and to mindlessly go through our days without recognizing what’s right in front of our eyes. Ethical decision making requires awareness of self, others and the results of our actions. The first way to start improving the quality of our decisions is to practice self-awareness. Here are three strategies which I use myself regularly. If practiced, these self-awareness habits will become ethical leadership decisions.

Practice #1: Stop, go inward, breathe in and out

One of those ways to practice self-awareness is to choose regular times during the day to stop briefly to experience what is around us. Taking a moment to pause, go inward and be conscious by taking a breath in and out, is a small step, but it increases awareness of what’s going on inside of us. Simultaneously, it promotes awareness of our environment; the people, conditions, and things within it, making us more responsive to our surroundings.

Practice #2: Self inquiry questioning

Another way to individually make self-awareness auto corrections, is to actively seek to learn from the people around us using inner inquiry (thanks to Byron Katie for this very useful technique – check out her site to get more details). Whenever we feel ourselves judging another person’s actions, the first question to ask is “Is it true?” Then take a moment to go inside yourself, breathe in and out and simply be aware.

Once you are in that inner space ask yourself, if you can be absolutely sure that this judgement is true? If so, how does it feel and where do you feel it? If not, is there a helpful and non-frustrating reason for you to hold onto this un-true story? The body cannot lie. When you ask it a question about truth, the answer will come to you. This is the beginning of a self-inquiry process offering insights to see how our judgments – our mental projections – are affecting our interpretation of other people’s actions.

Practice #3: Virtues focusing

Finally, another individual action we can take to increase self-awareness is to focus on a virtue or quote that reminds us to take the high road and to prioritize the most important from the important. I have a package of virtues cards that I purchased from The Virtues Project which I use every morning before starting my day. I also use it when I am confused or frustrated about how to move forward with something that seems to be blocked. It is amazing how having the intent to be open to what is noble allows me to choose exactly the virtue needed in that moment.

This morning I was frustrated with trying to get a team together to plan an event they all said they were committed to. I randomly pulled two virtues cards: “determination” and “humanity”. Determination reminded me to continue until I reach my goal, and humanity reminded me that everybody has their own lives and reasons bigger than my own projections and assumptions. I asked myself what was in the way of the team meeting and realized my insistence on having the meeting on a certain day and time was the obstacle. I felt free from the judgement and the frustration as soon as I read the virtues. We changed the date and time. Simple.

Individually, we can’t make governments change their minds, stop wars or cause institutions to choose more ethical leaders for companies and organizations. But we all have a margin of control in our own lives that, if developed, will contribute to a consciousness of ethical decision-making. It is easy to lose sight of what is important when we are surrounded by details and material comforts. The demands of our daily lives can become all consuming if we are not vigilant.

V. How to know if you are on the right track

Developing the habits of self-awareness orients us to our noble, spiritual nature. It can make huge changes to the way we process decisions and act. You may be wondering how to know if you are on the right track with this inner work. There is certainly a difference between self absorption and self-awareness. You will know if you are truly developing self-awareness if you discover new insights that make you and others feel better. It is not self-awareness if these results do not become evident.

Self-awareness brings joy and promotes gratitude. If that is what you experience, you are on the right track. Click To Tweet

Decisions based on the correct gathering of data are likely to be better than those based on incorrect data. What we often neglect to consider is that the data gathering process for ethical leadership and ethical decision making starts with awareness of self. Leaving out the process of self-inquiry causes decisions to be mired in unconscious and often incorrect assumptions.

The practice of self-awareness matters because the way we approach anything becomes the foundation for approaching everything. Mahatma Gandhi is quoted to have said,

“There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”

To grow ethical workplaces filled with happy people who are productive and creative, we are each going to have to start learning the habits of peace. We are very good at the habits of war and, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha said in at the turn of the century in London,

“We know the effects of war are bad. So let us try, as an experiment, peace, and if the results of peace are bad, then we can choose if it would be better to go back to the old state of war!”

Self awareness is the beginning of the practice of peace, which in turn results in more empathetic and ethical decisions. Let’s put energy into peace rather than into the violence of judgments and false assumptions. Click To Tweet

VI. Conclusions and recap

This is the real work: Self-awareness practices that become habit, will lead to questions and ethical decision-making. When many of us use them, we will be actively raising the bar for our society and our organizations. Here they are again:

  1. Every morning start your day with a few minutes of deep reflection. This can be as simple as becoming aware of your breath and going within. Stop your activity regularly throughout the day to just take a moment, go inside and reflect. Seconds of your life lived in this awareness will be come hours of aligned and purposeful work.
  2. When you feel yourself judging another person, use the Byron Katie method of inner inquiry (she calls this “The Work”):
    • Is it true? Can I be absolutely certain it is true?
    • If it is true, how do I feel and where do I feel it? If it is not true, is there a non stressful, un-frustrating reason to hold on to the untrue statement?
    • Who would I be if I could not think this thought?
  3. Use an inspiring quote or a “virtues pick” to orient yourself to the noble attitude required to accomplish something in your day. The Virtues Project has an online version called the “Virtues spread” which you can use if you don’t want to buy a deck of the virtues cards.

I hope you found this post useful for considering how to take regular purposeful steps towards improving your own ethical leadership capacity. I would love to hear about your insights as you go through this process! You can always find me at marie@shiftworkplace.com

About Marie:

Marie Gervais, PhD., CEO of Shift Management Inc., provides managerial training and workforce interpersonal development to business and industry through online courses and web coaching. She helps individuals and organizations build talent and skills for leadership, communication, and conflict resolution particularly at the supervisory and middle management level. Her work has gained a reputation for excellence in integration and inclusion of the diverse workforce. With her team at Shift Management, Dr Gervais helps clients reach their business goals through team building coaching and industry-specific training development for interpersonal leadership skills. Her impactful digital and multi-media resources have been successfully implemented with many different populations and contexts. The results prove that a learning workplace is a happy and profitable one!

Check out Marie’s podcast Culture and Leadership Connections on Apple Podcasts and on the Shift website to hear stories of leadership and all things cultural. Consider the signature Supervisory Leadership Certificate Course for upskilling your workforce at:


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