Unlocking Ethical Excellence: Harnessing Powerful Decision-Making at Work

Unlocking Ethical Excellence: Harnessing Powerful Decision-Making at Work

Written By: Judy Tincher & Julie Lancaster

Have you ever been in an ethical dilemma?

Some of you are recalling memories in which you faced a serious conundrum that took you deep into yourself. Others may be summoning recollections of times when you were in a gray area- times there may have been a sliding scale of what is right and what is wrong. Others may have a firm and clear outlook on what is right and what is wrong. A client recently described her black-and-white perspective to me saying, “There are no ethical dilemmas.”

Most of us have faced an ethical dilemma: a decision-making point between two tough choices.

Both ethics and morals address making choices between “right” and “wrong,” but in an ethical dilemma, there are behavior guidelines or rules set by an external source, such as a workplace, whereas a moral dilemma would be one’s personal perspective on right and wrong.[1] It is a dilemma, especially when both choices represent something important.

I was working at a ski area and was closing down the employee locker room at the end of the day. Guest-facing operations had been closed for several hours; it was getting dark and just a few employees were going through the end-of-day procedures. A colleague and I were locking the doors when a guest rushed up. In a panic, he explained that he had lost his cash, specifically, $5000 cash wrapped in a rubber band. He was an international traveler, and in broken English, explained where he thought he lost his cash and gestured that he wanted to look around. The man retraced his steps in the lodge and, completing his search empty-handed, made a plan to return the next day to file a lost item report with the appropriate staff during operating hours.

As the man left, the staff and I speculated out loud:

  • That cash is gone!
  • What would I do if I found it?
  • What’s he doing with $5000 cash wrapped in a rubber band?

Going back to the first series of questions- would you wonder about the cash? If you were a uniformed employee who found it – what would you do? What would you do if you knew the money was from a black market trade? Is it “black and white” for you? Would you be certain to turn it in… or certain to keep it?

Cash creates an ethical dilemma for many people. It’s been a key plot in countless stories and stretches across time and continents. This story represents an ethical dilemma; there are workplace guidelines, and in this case, not everyone in the story is at a workplace. When there are gray areas in decision-making, an individual’s values come into play. A person is guided by their judgment of what is important in life.

Do you know your top four values? Allow me to invite you to a values exercise, and let me encourage you to do this periodically to check in with yourself.

Review the list of values below.[2] Start by putting a checkmark next to every value that is important to you. Run through the list again, and narrow your list by underlining 8 values. Go through the list of eight values, and filter it again by circling your top four.

Accountability
Achievement
Adaptability
Adventure
Altruism
Ambition
Authenticity
Balance
Beauty
Being the best
Belonging
Career
Caring
Collaboration
Commitment
Community
Compassion
Competence
Confidence
Connection
Contentment
Contribution
Cooperation
Courage
Creativity
Curiosity Dignity
Diversity


Environment
Efficiency
Equality
Ethics
Excellence
Fairness
Faith
Family
Financial stability
Forgiveness
Freedom
Friendship Fun
Future generations
Generosity
Giving back
Grace
Gratitude Growth
Harmony
Health
Home
Honesty
Hope
Humility
Humor Inclusion
Independence
Initiative
Integrity
Intuition
Job security
Joy
Justice
Kindness
Knowledge
Leadership
Learning
Legacy
Leisure
Love
Loyalty
Making a difference
Nature
Openness
Optimism
Order
Parenting
Patience
Patriotism
Peace
Perseverance Personal fulfillment
Power
Pride
Recognition
Reliability
Resourcefulness
Respect
Responsibility
Risk-taking  
Safety
Security
Self-discipline
Self-expression
Self-respect
Serenity
Service
Simplicity
Spirituality
Sportsmanship
Stewardship
Success
Teamwork
Thrift
Time
Tradition
Travel
Trust
Truth
Understanding
Uniqueness
Usefulness
Vision
Vulnerability
Wealth
Well-being
Wholeheartedness
Wisdom


How have these values shown up for you? Look back through your choices and notice how your values guided your decision-making.

My sister-in-law was recently offered a new role. She liked her work as a design engineer, she liked her autonomy and flexibility to work from home, and she liked her salary and generous benefits package, but she missed the client relations and creative engagement she’d had in previous roles. The new role promised to fill a creative outlet that had been missing, but troubled, she lamented, “It won’t be a salary increase.”

I thought about what I would do. I recently did a values exercise in which “adventure” surfaced as one of my top values. I always knew I liked adventure, and as I looked back at my career choices, “adventure” as a top value was making itself known: I worked internationally living in a dorm with hundreds of other internationals, I learned and taught 4-wheel driving as part of a role with a non-profit, I worked from a sailboat in my first fully remote role. Taking an observer’s perspective, it was clear that adventure was very important to me.

I relayed my insights to my sister-in-law, encouraging her to look at the values that were at odds with her decision. Every choice is a vote for a prevailing value, and oftentimes our choices show us what we most value. She recognized that “stability” and “creativity” were against each other. She knew that the new role offered an acceptable level of stability and she took the leap to embrace the value of creativity, accepting the new role as a lateral salary move.

Now that you are reacquainted with your values, get acquainted with your organizational and workplace values. Perhaps these values are a key to your choice to work there, perhaps you need to look them up. Either way, get a sense of the organization and workplace values and see how they align with your personal values.

Our leadership development firm has had the honor of providing ethics & values trainings and discussions to thousands.  We’ve worked with North Country HealthCare, Grand Canyon Conservancy, Mountain Line Transit, Northern Arizona University, Head Start, Nothern Arizona Council of Governments, Lewis Mason Thurston Area Agency on Aging, Coconino County & Maricopa County, AZ, and more. From. the research and the ethical issues that our clients struggle with, we bring you four ideas to implement.

Discuss your personal and workplace values with your team. Initiate a conversation about your values and get curious about other people’s values. You can set the tone by posting a statement about your values in a conspicuous location for others to see. [3]

Take action when your personal values are misaligned with your organization or workplace values. Consider a change to your 3 P’s. Change your perspective, your proximity, or your persuasion. This tool can help you honor your values while considering another point of view, taking a step back, or looking at your influence in a new way.

Create Workplace Culture. You’ve started having values discussions with your team; now it’s time to get on the same page. What are workplace values that need clarification? Are there “elephants in the room” that you can address? Bring up ethical scenarios with your team before they happen, and bring up problems promptly when they do happen. Go back to your personal and workplace values to illustrate and support your decision-making. Decision-making is a crucial leadership skill, and most decisions have to do with how you handle yourself.[4] Go back to your values to gain insight into your decision-making.

Gut check. When faced with a choice, learn to listen to your gut. When a choice is right or wrong- what cues is your body giving you?

Back to the lost cash- did your heart race if you thought about keeping the money? Would you tell your respected elders or your kids that you found $5000 cash and kept it? Would you be calm keeping the cash if you knew it was from the black market?

Let me tell you what happened to the cash. A skier on vacation found the hundred dollar bills wrapped in a rubber band, and without counting it, they submitted it to the lift operator. The lift operator submitted it to their supervisor, who submitted it to security staff, who recorded the cash as a lost item and put it in a safe. The man who lost his cash got it back the next morning.

How do you feel now? 


Judy Tincher is a facilitator at Lancaster Leadership. Judy’s top character strengths are zest, love and learning, and gratitude. She earned a Bachelor of Science in History/Social Studies Education and a Master Certification in Transformational Coaching. Judy has 15+ years of leadership and nonprofit experience and combines Positive Intelligence®, transformational coaching, and habit research for an innovative approach to leadership. You can find Judy on the trails around Flagstaff, AZ when not working.

Julie Lancaster is the founder and director of Lancaster Leadership. Her top character strengths are honesty, zest, and curiosity. Julie has a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies, and a Master of Arts in Education: Culture, Language & Diversity. Julie has decades of leadership experience and is a Certified group coach, Myers-Briggs practitioner, Change Style Indicator, and Change Style Navigator facilitator. She has been recognized as Entrepreneur of the Month, Businesswoman of the Month, and Adjunct Instructor of the Year. When not working, Julie loves digging in the dirt and has authored the Flagstaff and Tucson Planting Guides.


  1. “Ethics versus Morals: A Comparison.” NASBA Center for Public Trust. https://thecpt.org/2023/03/24/ethics-versus-morals-a-comparison-2/#:~:text=Both%20ethics%20and%20morals%20refer,principles%20regarding%20right%20and%20wrong.
  2. Dare to Lead List of Values. Brene Brown. https://brenebrown.com/resources/dare-to-lead-list-of-values/
  3. Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner. (1999) Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Gudie to Rewarding and Recognizing Others. Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  4. Maxwell, John C. (2011) The Five Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential. Center Street Hatchette Book Group.

[1] “Ethics versus Morals: A Comparison.” NASBA Center for Public Trust. https://thecpt.org/2023/03/24/ethics-versus-morals-a-comparison-2/#:~:text=Both%20ethics%20and%20morals%20refer,principles%20regarding%20right%20and%20wrong.

[2] Dare to Lead List of Values. Brene Brown. https://brenebrown.com/resources/dare-to-lead-list-of-values/

[3] Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner. (1999) Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Gudie to Rewarding and Recognizing Others. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

[4] Maxwell, John C. (2011) The Five Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential. Center Street Hatchette Book Group.

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