Ombud's corner: Use of sensemaking* in ethical decisions

In this series, the Bulletin aims to explain the role of the Ombuds at CERN by presenting practical examples of misunderstandings that could have been resolved by the Ombuds if he had been contacted earlier. Please note that, in all the situations we present, the names are fictitious and used only to improve clarity.


Taking ethical decisions can often be a dilemma - one that requires recognition and proper representation of multiple pieces of complex information, as well as an intuitive judgment about potential consequences. Pressure is particularly placed on organizational leaders, who are tasked with projects, partnerships and individuals. Constraining forces - be they personal, situational or environmental - can negatively influence any decision by decreasing ethical awareness, ethical sensitivity and ethical judgment. By creating mental compensatory models, the Sensemaking* technique serves to counteract these constraining forces that narrow the search and evaluation of information, and lead to poor decisions.

For example, emotional reactions can negatively influence ethical decisions. These reactions require special compensating tactics, such as emotion regulation, cognitive reappraisal or relaxation - all of which can be learnt. Self-reflection and self-awareness could also improve ethical decision making by helping the leader reflect on his personal motives and prior experiences. Any ethical decision should also take into account the potential consequences involved. Mental models favoring forecasting include: focusing on a limited number of essential issues, identifying the most critical ones, and considering alternative consequences. Leaders also need to be aware of their biases when dealing with interpersonal crises. Techniques that develop an accurate and neutral integration of information also favour ethical decisions.

Let us take a look at a single situation between a supervisor and a supervisee, but handled with two different strategies: one including emotion regulation, self-reflection, forecasting and information integration; and the other marred by cognitive limitations. But first, let me set the scene:

Max** is the leader of a large CERN unit responsible for the overall operations of the technical and scientific infrastructure of the Laboratory. Many people rely daily on his decisions which often cannot be delayed. Max is constantly stressed by the weight of his responsibilities and the urgency with which he should act.

In this context, Diana**, one of his supervisees, bursts in his office without warning and starts complaining about several people in his group who are making constant maintenance mistakes, to the point that she now believes that they may do it on purpose, retaliating against her last decisions to change the schedule of the shifts. This endangers the overall CERN scientific program and Diana asks for immediate action from her supervisor.

[Case 1] Max's heart rate immediately begins accelerating, as he feels put on the spot. Max dislikes Diana, who he finds distant and arrogant, so he is not surprised that some discontent is running through the team. So when Diana starts explaining the problem to him, Max interrupts her saying that he does not care about the details, which are not of his business. He tells her that such maintenance is a priority and, consequently, Diana has to satisfy the requests of her team in order to avoid any possible technical halts; he then, literally, shows Diana the door while saying that it is useless to discuss the issue further. At this point, Diana feels totally rejected, disapproved of by her team, and has a serious problem with maintenance and her leadership. Operations are almost guaranteed to stop, thus increasing the dispute even further.

[Case 2] Max takes a big breath and asks Diana to sit down first. This is a good opportunity to gently remind Diana of the reality of her job and to ask her to stop constantly using her laptop, especially during meetings, as he does not appreciate this. It is as though Diana finds the meeting so dull she cannot bother paying attention. When Max had been directly involved with the operations, he had suffered through similar circumstances, so he understands Diana’s stress.

He then asks Diana to tell him - quietly - the full story. This is a dilemma: on one hand, Diana is not wrong about modifying the schedule, as it provides a more efficient maintenance which is absolutely needed; on the other hand, the team is not prepared to "take it" from Diana, as it lowers their supplementary hours, and thus their money. Diana's authority is also at stake: what happens if she is not supported? What if the team gets the message that they can get anything by applying pressure? Max has nobody to replace Diana if she breaks down - but neither does he have another team. Max suggests that Diana evaluates the possible consequences of any given action, and find the most favorable, if not perfect, solution. After two hours, during which they review all the elements, solutions and consequences relating to the issue, they make an ethical decision: Diana will rework the schedule in the spirit of improving performance, while trying to limit the salary losses. Few people are expected to reject this new scenario, and may be convinced to agree by their colleagues. Both Max and Diana agree that they have found the best possible solution. They also feel like their working relationship had been strengthened by the crisis.


Difficult decisions very often lead to a dilemma; there is no perfect solution. For these decisions, all elements have to be taken into account, including: past causes, current problems, and possible future consequences. Regulating emotions, self-reflection, forecasting and information integration are great ingredients which facilitate the possibility of reaching an ethical decision. Remember that an informal and confidential discussion with the Ombuds may also allow you to formulate a clearer decision, as you interact with a neutral party.

* See Journal of Business Ethics (2102) 107:49-64 by C.E.Thiel, Z.Bagdasarov, L.Harkrider, J.F.Johnson and M.D.Mumford

** Names and stories are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin