Coming to our senses

Or how I taught ethical decision-making to road crew . . . .

It’s the middle of the great pandemic of 2020 and I am having a terrible time falling asleep. Not all that surprising given I live in New York City and we are being hit hard.

I have tried all the standards, meditation, warm milk with turmeric, no computer screens or email checks in the hour before bedtime. Finally, I have found a solution. Pulling out books I read long ago, found influential but have not read again in, well, decades.

One of the books is “Coming to Our Senses: Body and spirit in the hidden history of the west,” by Morris Berman. It’s a complicated, if fascinating, way of evaluating western history. The gist of it is that we will not transcend the messes we have created in pretty much every domain until we are truly present in our bodies. Less enchanted with reaching for the stars and more about reveling in the ordinariness that it is to be human.

Re-reading parts of the book reminded me of something else. My older experience devising instructional exercises that help students “feel” a difficult concept in a new way. It had been on my mind anyway as I am always thinking through how to improve on the Descant platform. How to make small business encounters with commercial credit practices simple and pleasing and yet instructive in the sense of experiencing what it means to be the leader of a creditworthy business.

Before I launched my first startup (online learning), I had a small consulting firm. I advised businesses and government agencies on matters of business ethics and law. One such agency (a state transportation department) asked me to evaluate an ethics training program that was being panned by the “rank and file” and possibly teach some sessions as needed.

It was apparent to me that the traditional classroom model being used was a problem especially because they were mixing up employees. A single class might include tech professionals from one division, in-house lawyers, and road crew. The road crew struck me as being almost in pain sitting there–understandable given the total contrast from their normal working environment.

I couldn’t get permission to offer the session out on the highways so I set out to introduce an exercise that might work. I had seen an interesting scenario discussed in a PBS broadcast that I got permission to use. Two employees of the same company were long-time friends who shared a vacation home. The company had gone through an embezzlement case in which the insurance company paid up after no perpetrator could be identified. Naturally, one of the friends is staying at the vacation home when he stumbles upon computer print-outs that make it clear the embezzler was his friend. A confrontation follows in which the embezzler pleads for silence to save his job and family finances.

Here’s how I used the scenario. I showed the video through to the end of role-playing the confrontation. Then I asked participants to “take a stand.” Those in favor of disclosure on one side of the room and those in favor of protecting the friend on the other. I did this in over 40 sessions. Each time my stomach would clench in fear that no one would move or they would react in anger or disdain. Each time, they engaged . . . even the road crew.

They would stand up and start walking reasonably quickly and then you could see them slow down, maybe pivot, turn back and complete taking their position all while brows were furrowed in concentration. It seemed to me they were processing in a deeply physical way that ethical decision-making is complicated and not just a thumbs up/thumbs down choice. Observing this part of the exercise moved me to tears every time.

I’ve written below of my concerns about black box credit scoring. I think it’s related in part to this experience. A quick score-based decision about a business doesn’t permit the evaluator to understand the business much less the hopes and dreams of its founder. Much less inspire or inform a long-term constructive relationship.

Commercial relationships are complicated. Finding trust in them is too. Supporting the process through technology means we can’t tap into all of human senses but to the extent possible, we hope to continuously improve on design elements that help our members internalize credit and trust in new ways.


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