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Four Ways to Reach Ethical Agreement Despite Cultural Differences

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One of the biggest misconceptions about ethics is that it's difficult or impossible to reach agreement with someone who comes from a culture that's radically different from ours, says Mark Pastin, CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing ethics in business and government.

For some reason, people give more weight to cultural difference in ethics than they do in science or technology, says Pastin.

"For example, I was told in college that we view obligations to the elderly differently than some Eskimos, who will send the old off into the frozen tundra to die in peace," said Pastin, a Harvard-educated ethicist who's received grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. "But I have witnessed healthcare delivered in Eskimo villages. When their options for the care of the elderly are similar to ours, they make the same healthcare decisions we do."

Multicultural workplaces are today's business reality. Most of us work with people from different generations, countries, races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, says Pastin, who discusses this and more in his book, Make an Ethical Difference (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

So how do we solve ethical problems in business and come to agreements with people who are so seemingly so different from us? Four simple rules can help close this perceived ethics-culture gap, according to Pastin:

1. Engage your sympathy and empathy
There are no cultures in which there is no ability to sympathize or empathize. These are human traits, not cultural ones. If you want to get insight into another person's thinking, don't let cultural difference stand in the way. Meet with the affected individuals who differ from you the most. Learn their interests and ground rules--the rules they will breach only under extreme duress. Meeting with the other party face to face and trying to understand their problems and pain is the first step to breaking down cultural barriers.

2. Focus on action
Reaching an agreement does not require that both sides have exactly the same views of right and wrong. It's not even necessary to come to 100% agreement in order to arrive at a satisfactory outcome with another person. When trying to solve an ethical dilemma, it's more important to agree on an action than on all of the underlying justifications for that action.

3. Find common ground
I have encountered few situations where the parties could not find some common ground. Take facts, for example. When two parties from different cultures voice their opinions, differences emerge. But when the facts of the situation are laid out, the two parties often find pieces of the story on which they agree. Another way for two parties to find common ground is to look at their interests. Often, especially in business settings, two parties will discover that despite their differences, they share several common interests.

4. Don't blame culture differences
Factors that cause ethical disagreement are often not culturally based. People are often surprised to learn that the factors that cause different cultures to disagree are the same factors that cause people within a culture to disagree. People wrongly assume that another party doesn't understand an issue of right or wrong because of their religion, age, ethnicity, or any other cultural difference. But the truth is that ethical agreement is possible if you look beyond cultural differences to focus on your common humanity.

More About Mark Pastin
Mark Pastin is CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing ethics in business and government. A Harvard-educated ethicist who's received grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he's published more than 100 articles and written a new book, Make an Ethical Difference (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

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