Stopping a Plane with Ethics Aikido

Ethics Aikido is the art pushing back without pushback.

It doesn’t take a black belt. Just one simple question. I used it once to stop a potentially scandalous $500,000 plane flight.

We’ve all found ourselves in ethical jams. Our bosses or colleagues want to do something we think is wrong, or plays too close to the line.

We don’t want to go along. But we still need to get along.

Some people advise saying something like, “I’m not comfortable with this.” But that approach has several problems:

  • Focusing on your “comfort” level won’t move personalities that favor thinking over feeling
  • You might come across as weak, indecisive, or self-absorbed
  • You might (even if right) come across as unnecessarily accusatory. It’s like asking “Who farted?” when something smells bad. Your priority should be venting the room, not finding out who dealt what.

Ethics Aikido involves a simple, non-accusatory question. In one case, it helped me avoid scandal and save a client $450,000.

I worked for a global firm. Our contract with a client entitled our senior partner to charter a plane for meetings with the client in Asia. Finding himself in North America, the senior partner wanted to charter a jet that would fly him non-stop: cost to client — $500,000. The senior partner’s chief of staff asked my team to arrange the flight with the client.

This struck me as abusive. Rather than say so, my team simply told his chief of staff, “OK. Of course, the client’s people often leak things to the press. If word of a $500,000 charter flight gets out, how should we explain it?”

The charter was re-booked to stop and refuel in Europe. Scandal avoided. Cost savings to client: $450,000.

Asking, “How will we explain this?” is powerful. It shows that you are on the same side as your colleagues (“we” not “I” or “you”). Without pointing fingers, or even saying that an ethical issue exists, the question forces those who want to go forward to think through the ethics, consequences and optics — and to take responsibility for them.

Ethics Aikido. Try it the next time you find yourself in an ethical jam.


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