An Ethical Blind Spot


Jack and Jill have a terrible car accident. Both cars are destroyed, but thankfully neither person is hurt.

They reflect on how lucky they are to survive the collision uninjured and then start gathering any salvageable personal effects from their cars.

Retrieving a bottle of Penfolds Grange from the glovebox, Jill says “My car is completely trashed but this bottle is intact. I think we should celebrate our good luck.”

Jill hands Jack the bottle; he opens it, drinks deeply and hands it back. Surprisingly, Jill doesn’t take a drink.

“Aren’t you having any?”, Jack asks.

“No”, says Jill, “I think I will just wait for the police…”.

I like this joke. They’ve both had a terrible shock, but Jill manages to keep her wits about her.

Jack might be a bit foolish, but Jill is sneaky. She offers the wine to him to celebrate their survival, but then she doesn’t join in and leaves him exposed to a drink-driving charge.

So, actually, she’s not just sneaky, she’s unethical.

I am uncomfortable with Jill’s behaviour. I know this is just a joke, but I have been in too many negotiations where there is unethical behaviour. Sometimes it’s blatant and obvious but more often it’s what Max Bazerman, Harvard professor and negotiation and behavioural ethics specialist, calls “bounded ethicality”.

Bazerman describes “bounded ethicality” as questionable behaviour that occurs in the heat of the moment; it is most often embellishment of facts or misleading omissions. He says that our ability to make ethical choices can be affected by stress or the pressure of the situation. We don’t recognise the “bounded ethicality” in ourselves, and even after the negotiation we don’t see that our behaviour was inconsistent with our values.

According to Bazerman and his research colleagues, this ethical blind spot is more common than we realise. In my experience, parties don’t usually enter negotiations intending to deceive or defraud each other, they just get so caught up in wanting to win that they bend their own rules.

How can we resist “bounded ethicality” and stay true to our values in a negotiation? These tips are a good starting point:

  1. Use a negotiation framework that puts a strong emphasis on preparation before the negotiation so that you are less likely to deviate from the plan.
  2. Practise and preferably role play monitoring your emotions so you keep a clearer head when the negotiation triggers a volatile response in you.
  3. Ward off the win-at-all costs mentality that leads to an ethical blind spot by carefully selecting the criteria you use to judge the success of the negotiation; for example, include an assessment of whether your actions during the negotiation were values-aligned.

If you want to learn more about this, do get in touch.

As for our protagonists, perhaps Jill was impacted by “bounded ethicality”. Under normal circumstances she may not have trapped Jack in that way, but under pressure she did. Maybe she had more than one blind spot?