Promise stones

In ancient times (read: “B.C.”!) when two people entered into a contract, they would go to the local “promise stone,” standing on either side of it, and put their index fingers through the keyhole until they touched. They then made a promise to each other.

It relied on honor and integrity alone.
Surround yourself with people who act with honor to others.
And act honorably to others. Especially ones you have a dispute with.

What the Challenger Space Shuttle & Two Engineers Can Teach Us About Moral Resiliency

It was one of “those” moments – a moment that everyone recalls where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.  It was January. And bitterly cold. Even in Florida.  Bright, sunny, blue skies, but cold, on the morning the Challenger Space Shuttle, carrying the first civilian space passenger, exploded and disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff. 

Drip by drip over time, the truth emerged.  Two engineers at Morton Thiokol, the company who made the booster rockets for the shuttle, refused to give last minute approval for the launch.  They were concerned that the O-rings inside the rockets would contract in the cold weather, allowing fuel to leak and causing the rockets to explode.  After some internal back and forth inside and between Morton Thiokol and NASA, the launch was approved the night before liftoff. But not by Allan McDonald, the director of the booster rocket program and Roger Boisjoly, another Morton Thiokol engineer who had expressed concerns about the safety of the launch.  Allan McDonald. Roger Boisjoly  The launch was approved by McDonald’s superiors inside Morton Thiokol, under pressure from NASA.

President Reagan quickly appointed a blue-ribbon investigative committee, reportedly telling the chairman to make sure NASA looked good. [1]   When a key witness testified that any internal dissent was resolved prior to launch, McDonald courageously stood up in the back of the hearing room, risking his entire career, and, with shaking hands, stated otherwise.[2]

You can imagine what came next for Allen McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, who were still employed at Morton Thiokol when the hearings occurred. No one wanted to go to work every day and see two living, walking reminders of the worst decision they ever made in their life.

Boisjoly left the company but McDonald stayed on, despite internal animus towards him and being relegated to backwater assignments.

Allen McDonald must have lived the rest of his career at Morton Thiokol feeling alone. Shivering from the isolation and the horror that occurred.  How could he stay at Morton Thiokol – isolated and avoided – and endure?  Why did he stay?

Allen McDonald was a morally resilient man. He knew his values. He knew what data he relied on in making values-based decisions.  And he knew that ethics – the values of a system – are powerfully driven by the culture of an organization, not its written ethics rules.   He valued his job, but he valued his personal, moral decision-making integrity more than his job. He paid a price for it.  But such was his power that his obituary, and Boisjoly’s, inspire people thirty-five years later.

Our healthcare workers and organizations faced a crisis of moral and ethical resiliency during the worst moments of the pandemic. An entity and person may have strong, internal ethical and moral processes but what happens when circumstances overwhelm the capacity of the system and individuals to meet their own ethical and moral standards?  How do they do work which impacts the lives of others when their ability to do so appropriately is compromised by situations beyond their control?

One can leave the situation, like Boisjoly did.  Or stay, like McDonald – but it takes deep personal awareness and resiliency to stay.

For organizations, it involves, a hard and honest look at what values are being compromised and an unyielding determination to immediately return to the prior values when the crisis is over.

Ethical resiliency and moral resiliency are components of ethical wisdom or wellness.  They are also necessary and powerful professional development tools.


[1] Id. McDonald

[2] Id. McDonald

The Surprising Connection Between Brain Chemistry and Ethics Decisions

Did you know that ethics decisions are impacted by our brain chemistry in the moment?

We all like to think that being an ethical and moral person is something intrinsic to us. That our morals were formed by our family of origin and people who influenced us positively when we were in developmental stages.  And to a large extent that is true.

We also know that circumstances and culture are powerful influencers of human behavior.  We remember one or both of our parents warning us about the perils of “falling in with the wrong crowd” and “peer pressure” when we were teenagers.  We venerate those brave individuals who do the right thing, often at great risk to their own interests, when their peers are too timid to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

But it feels unnerving and unnatural to think that the chemical juices in our brain, which we give little thought to, can pull us off our moral foundation and the virtues we all hold dear.

Simply having elevated levels of testosterone and cortisol at the same time increases our tendency to engage in cheating for self interest (and cheating is often a way to temporarily alleviate anxiety and stress).   You can read more about that particular vicious circle here. Cheating to relieve anxiety.

There are a handful of hormones and neurotransmitters which impact ethical decision making.  And learning about them and how they impact our ethical decision making is  fun and interesting.   Understanding how brain chemistry impacts decision making helped me understand how I misinterpreted many emails. It also helped me gain clarity about many of my less than stellar decisions – a process of self analysis  that is uncomfortable but highly informative and equipping.

With increasing frequency, professional development courses and programs are focusing on neuroscience, particularly as it relates to cognitive decision making dynamics.

Brain chemistry, a subset of neuroscience, can directly influence how ethical or moral we are in any given moment.  Managing our brain chemistry not only makes it more likely we will make better ethics decisions it has the added benefit of simply making us feel better.


Why Personality Science Tools Will Be with Us Forever

Somewhere along your professional development journey you have likely taken a personality “test” or tool.  Whether it was the DISC, the Birkman, the Hogan, the Enneagram or the long misunderstood Myers-Briggs, people love taking these types of personality tools and learning more about themselves.

Just look your Facebook feed and all the posts from your friends sharing their results of those funny, frivolous “combine the name of the street you grew up on – with your favorite food – plus your age – to see the result” frolics.  FB personality frolics

And it is a good thing people like interacting with these tools (even the silly Facebook ones benefit our brain chemistry if it helps us connect with a friendSocial Media and Oxytocin  While scientists are busy debating which personality science tool has the best scientific grounding or best metrics (yes, personality science is a science) most people are ignoring the scientific debate and happily engaging with the personality tools which resonate with them.

Why?  Because they find the tool helpful!  If a personality tool resonates with a person, it is because it gives them greater clarity and understanding about interpersonal relationships, insight into themselves, and well, gosh darn it, they are just plain fun.  Even while scientists parse and discuss various metrics and uses of personality science tools, there is widespread agreement that:

. . . a relatively small number of personality traits can account for most of the ways in which people differ from one another. Thus, they are related to a wide range of important life outcomes. These traits are also relatively stable, but changeable with effort and good timing. [1]

If you are a company seeking to improve the professional development skills of your team through a personality science tool, yes, focus on the metrics, and also on whether the personality science tool resonates with people in a practical and helpful way.  If the results are too technical or not intuitive to them, the team member may not receive the intended benefit of the tool.

Know also that various tools give various people various information, all of which benefit the workplace if they help your team members gain better understanding of themselves and others.  For example, what I like about the Enneagram, a $12 online personality science tool (free from unofficial providers) is its focus on spirituality, something one would not normally associate with the workplace. But a primary goal of the Enneagram is its identification of each person’s subconscious fear. Why is knowing our subconscious fears important?

Psychologists and common sense both tell us that much unethical conduct results from subconscious fear – people are acting out in ways they are not consciously aware of, usually from fear.   The Enneagram, combined with other widely available personality science tools, can arm a person with an array of helpful tools for making better ethics decisions.

So, go ahead and enjoy those fun personality tests.  Here is a fun frolic where you can see which celebrities share your “type.”  (Confession:  I am geeked about being the same personality type as Oprah and Abraham Lincoln!)

Personality science and an individual’s worldview are components of ethical wellness, ethical wisdom and our professional identity.