Ethics in Organizations: the Unconscious at Work

Part Three
By Annabel Beerel, MBA, PhD

Acting Chair, Sabbatical Replacement
Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Ethics
Southern New Hampshire University


Before we discuss the pedagogy I use as part of my teaching approach it may be useful to recap my proposition. I argue that the primary goal of ethics education is to transform people’s consciousness in a manner that moves them closer to their hidden wholeness. Personal wholeness is achieved by the integration and assimilation of all our parts, both light and dark, good and bad. Ethics education should facilitate the integration and assimilation process.

I claim the ethics-morality gap or the inner war as I have called it, a significant moral problem we all face. I have argued that to address the inner war ethics education needs to include aspects of psychology. Clearly psychology is a wide and deep field and ethics education in no way needs to be limited to the few, but important, issues I have focused on. The aspects of psychology I believe are essential to ethics education, however, include the role of the unconscious or the shadow, understanding group dynamics, and examining the moral impact of regression, splitting and scapegoating.

Having laid out the important elements of the ethics curricula or the “what should be taught” I now focus on the “how ethics should be taught.” In this section I argue for the need of an experiential teaching pedagogy alongside conventional teaching approaches. I claim that understanding one’s own inner war, the role of the individual and group shadow, and the power of group dynamics can only be grasped using “in the moment” or “here and now reflection in action.” For the individual to really grasp the intellectual and emotional struggles she experiences in making real world moral choices, she needs an opportunity to taste that experience in a space where she can look at both her conscious and unconscious behaviors during her time of action. It is this activity that takes consciousness to a deeper level thereby stimulating transformation.

Conventional rational and logical teaching approaches will not make the necessary impact here. The challenge for us educators is how to create a climate in the classroom that is no longer one where the teacher expert deposits knowledge into the waiting passive receptacle, student, to one that is a lively learning laboratory where all participants co-create knowledge that is relevant and meaningful to everyday life. Changing College Classroom (1994) by Diane Halpern and Associates, tackles this question in helpful ways. One particularly helpful chapter in this book, “Inquiry as a Tool in Critical Thinking” by Alison King, explores the use of inquiry and questioning as a way of advancing critical thinking and understanding at the time of experience.

I begin my discussion regarding my pedagogical approach with insights provided by other educationalists who support the experiential approach. This is followed by a detailed description of my own particular style of experiential teaching. I interweave my discussions with real life teaching examples.

Support for the Experiential Approach

The great educational theorist, John Dewey in his book, Experience & Education (1938), discusses two approaches to education which he names the progressive and the traditional. He sees progressive education as development from within and traditional as formation from without. The traditional approach he describes as a process of overcoming a person’s natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure (Dewey 1938, 17). This form of education he argues consists of the transmittance of bodies of education and skills that have been worked out in the past to the new generation. Using this approach, moral training consists of forming habits of action in conformity with rules and standards. It is this approach I critique in the beginning of this article.

Progressive education, on the other hand focuses on making abstract principles concrete through application. That application is experience, genuine experience (39.) From Dewey’s perspective experience is a moving force which value can be judged only on the basis of what it moves toward and into (38).

Dewey also emphasizes freedom of the learner (22), being freedom of observation and judgment regarding matters that are intrinsically worthwhile (61). Dewey insists that the learner should participate in deciding the purposes (goals) of her learning as well as the activities aimed at achieving the purposes of the learning process (67). Above all, Dewey argues that education must be based on experience and that experience must always be the actual life experience of the individual (89).

Ronald R. Sims in his Teaching Business Ethics for Effective Learning (2002) also argues for an experiential approach to ethics education. He states that ethics education requires both a change in attitude and a personal change. Besides perceptual and cognitive issues it must address emotional and behavioral ones too (Sims 2002, 84). Like Dewey he supports the idea that students should be in control of their own learning and that education should be relevant to the student’s life situation (85). Experiential learning, he argues, provides the benefit that each student can learn in a way most suitable to her. To achieve experiential learning in the classroom Sims endorses David Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning model (86). I do not intend to expand on this model here other than to say that it divides people’s learning environments into 4 categories (affectively oriented, perceptually oriented, cognitively oriented, and behaviorally oriented) and suggests different teaching approaches for each category. Although a well researched book, I find Sims attention to the actual experiential learning approach somewhat lacking in specifics. While role plays and case studies may certainly provide new and interesting experiences, I find they lack the depth that real-time, here-and-now processing provides where the actual behavior of the student in the group provides the content for discussion.

Another well know experiential teaching technique has been developed by Bill Torbert of Boston College, known as Action Inquiry (Torbert 2004). Torbert explains action inquiry to be a method for simultaneously conducting both action and inquiry about that action. He argues that this practice promotes self-transformation and promotes a greater sense of personal power (1).

Action inquiry is achieved by what Torbert refers to as triple-loop feedback. This means that an individual is simultaneously aware of her relationship between her action (single-loop feedback), her strategy (double-loop feedback), and her attention itself (triple-loop feedback) and their effects in the outside world (19). Torbert holds that action inquiry results in learning in the vividness of each moment how to improve on the efficacy of one’s actions (2). The action inquiry approach, he claims, promotes more conscious living where greater self-awareness enhances personal integrity (17).

Michele Simms in her article About the Work of Ethics: Joining Business and Liberal Education (2003) refers to heutagogy as a teaching method that redefines the teacher-student relationship with its focus on self-direction and learning (Simms 2003, 31). The method emphasizes the holistic development of the learner that incorporates questioning one’s own values and assumptions. Heutagogy is based on Heider’s notions that people make sense of their world through their perceptions and experiences, which are viewed as valued knowledge. The underlying idea here is that people learn continuously by relating to others and interacting with the environment, all in real time.

Using this approach the teacher takes on the role of learner and student. The teacher is not the focus but rather brings parity to the classroom.

The well known educationalist, Parker Palmer claims “the knower who advances more rapidly toward the heart of truth is one who not only asks ’What is out there?’ in each encounter with the world, but one who also asks ‘What does this encounter reveal about me?’ (Palmer 1983, 60).

The experiential approach I use in teaching ethics incorporates Dewey’s Sims’, Torbert’s, Simms’ and Palmer’s themes. The added perspective that I bring is incorporating depth psychology into the teaching experience. In order to do so I strive to create a space in the classroom where real time, actual experience provides most of the learning content. The experience is treated not only as an encounter out there, but an encounter with the self. The application of ethical principles and moral behavior is thus studied in real time. The students pace their own learning process through the experiences they are able to assimilate, and the ambiguities and inconsistencies they are able to work with. As teacher, I take on the role of co-learner as parity in the classroom is important from both the safety and trust aspect. Now I turn to my approach to ethics education in more detail.

Teaching Ethics: The Unconscious at Work

Education in general is largely devoted to the development of the persona. The educative process strives to make the individual socially presentable and trains her in the “oughts” of the day. In this mode we are often taught to say things we do not mean and not to say things we do mean. This avoidance of honesty (dishonesty) presents itself over and over again in my classes and seminars (see Some Teaching Experiences below).

As I mentioned in the discussion on the goals of ethics education, I believe that the primary goal is to find our hidden wholeness. Achieving wholeness requires assimilation and integration. The task of assimilation lies in making that which is unconscious conscious. The task of integration is to embrace the opposites and paradoxes that exist within our human nature, both individually and collectively. By becoming poorer in illusions and richer in insight, we embrace the world from more mature viewing points. By reconciling with the dark other within we find new opportunities to reconcile with the “dark” other without, leading us to greater understanding and greater compassion. Taking responsibility for the management of our own shadow frees us from our flight to victimhood and gives us a more centered moral autonomy and greater personal integrity. Only by coming to terms with our inner wars can we move towards greater personal integration. This process towards wholeness or integration is for me the back-bone of ethics education.

If ethics is not about mastering a body of knowledge but rather about mastering the self and moving to greater wholeness, how does one teach that? Can self-reflection be taught? How can one teach simultaneous outward and inward participation (Schoen 1983)? How can one provide opportunities for the student to experience her dual nature? What context is required for the student to experience her inner war between the ethical principles she aspires to and the lived reality evident in her moral behavior? Ethical awareness and development in consciousness go hand in hand. What learning experiences do people need to develop their consciousness?

In my experience only a certain form of experiential teaching pedagogy can provide the opportunities for these types of learning. Teaching the intellectual cognitive part of ethics education is relatively easy and many types of pedagogy will be effective. The more challenging question for the educator lies in how to create a safe environment that allows for students’ unconscious to break through. The educator also needs to consider the context within which individuals can gain some idea of the illusionary self-evaluation of the ego and experience the individual’s own imperfections in real time for greatest impact. The educator must find ways to expose the ethics-morality gap or inner war of the students without denigrating them in front of their colleagues or making them feel shame or self-hate.

The experiential approach I adopt seeks to achieve these ends. The emphasis of my approach lies in real-time, in-the-moment processing. The content for discussion may begin with a case study, but more often depends on what emerges in the classroom. Although students receive a syllabus for the course and an extensive inter-disciplinary reading list, topics for each class discussion are sometimes provided, and sometimes not. When no topic is provided, students create their own conversation and their own learning environment. On occasion I will use a case study to prompt discussions. Whenever this occurs I guide the discussions as rapidly as possible from case study as other back to case study as the self. The anecdote of another person or group of people is used simply as the vehicle to mirror back to the students their own behavior.

My role is to join the learning process. Sometimes I make an intervention by mirroring back people’s behavior to themselves. Sometimes I facilitate other students to do the mirroring. Mirroring entails reflecting individual’s responses, attitude, facial and body expressions back to her in real time. This is usually done in the form of a question or inquiry. For example: “Where did that comment come from?” or “I wonder what we are afraid of right now?” or “What role do you think you are playing at this time?” or “What might your responsibility look like here?” The questions are intended to provoke students’ suppressed and repressed issues in the hopes of making them more conscious. Real time processing provides the student with an opportunity for self-examination in the moment.

My aim is to create a culture of curiosity in the classroom. The focus is on learning; learning about ourselves and how we relate to others; learning about how groups function and learning about what we get caught up within the group dynamics. Honesty is encouraged. Open conflict is favored to covert aggressive behaviors. Despite students’ hopes I counter any futile ambitions of exhibiting perfect behavior and challenge those who aspire to create images of perfection.

This form of experiential teaching is challenging. Many students resist the process preferring to talk about the other or others. Due to the traditional educational approach, they are accustomed to continuously seek the “right answer.” Students also struggle with the lack of an expert who will take up authority, tell them what to do and fill in the blanks. For students who wish to impress the authority this experiential teaching approach can prove quite frustrating as there is no authority to be impressed and there is no high score to be attained.

One particularly difficult aspect of this manner of learning is the disillusioning effect of the encounter with the unconscious negative part of one’s personality. As Erich Neumann in his book Depth Psychology and a New Ethic (1969) states “integration of the shadow places the highest moral demands on an individual’s morality for the acceptance of “evil” means nothing less than that his whole moral existence is put in question (78).” Students understandably resist gaining the perilous insight into the many-sidedness of their human nature not least of which their own capacity for dishonesty, selfishness, greed, envy, cowardice, cruelty, and violence. A great deal of class time is taken up in dealing with denial and resistance and highlighting the danger of denial of the negative. Learning that we cannot exterminate the dark side of ourselves but rather deal with it and take responsibility for it is a powerful process. At this stage an example might prove illustrative.

Recently I held a seminar for Women on Power and Ethics. The goal of the seminar was to provide executive women with a brief window into how they disempower themselves and how they sometimes do not live out the values they espouse (that inner-war syndrome). Twenty women participated in a four and a half hour intense seminar.

At one stage of the afternoon I used a case study to guide the discussions. The case study required the women, divided into four groups of five, to select a project director from a synopsis of five different curriculum vitas. Eager to demonstrate their competence the women delved into the case study with vigor.

After a few minutes I noticed a woman, someone who had arrived at the seminar in an obviously flustered state, having a difficult time interacting with her group. Her body language seemed to reflect anger and frustration. I wandered over to her group and observed their process for a few minutes. The woman, let us call her Martha, insisted repeatedly that only the woman candidate in the case study was worth considering and questioned why the rest of the group was wasting time focusing on the male candidates. The other women in the group did not know how to deal with the obviously angry and intransigent Martha. They decided to ignore her and continue their discussions. No one made any attempt to find out the cause of her distress. The more the rest of the group ignored her, the more frustrated Martha became. I asked Martha whether she in any way identified with the woman in the case study. With great passion she explained how typical it was that the woman would be overlooked for excellent job opportunities and how these would be readily given to men who in no way had equivalent competence. This fact, she claimed, made her angry.

After listening to her explanation, I asked Martha again whether she identified with the woman in the case study. She was silent. I then suggested that maybe what was happening in the here and now was that she, Martha, was projecting her own fear of inadequacy, incompetence and being overlooked onto the woman in the case. By not being conscious of what was happening, her fear, disguised as anger, led her group members to ignore her and thus rendered her feeling inadequate, incompetent and overlooked. In turn, the rest of the group not knowing how to deal with angry Martha, projected the angry woman onto the woman in the case study. Angry women should not be hired and so they chose to ignore her possibilities as a candidate. Angry Martha was ignored and the incompetent woman in the case study was overlooked or incompetent Martha was ignored and the angry woman in the case study overlooked.

Raising the possibility of the role of the unconscious in the case study discussion created an enormous shift in energy for both Martha and her group. The case study had served it purpose as a vehicle. After opening up the experience of Martha and her group to the rest of the women in the seminar the conversations shifted to what had come up for them in the case study and how that had impacted their behavior with one another. Some openly admitted concealing information from one another and others talked about their biases that surfaced during the discussion of the case. We took time to discuss some of the group dynamics that emerged and explored issues of trust, competition and scapegoating. It was quite an afternoon!

As we have discussed at some length the shadow is the unclaimed, repressed and unlived part of our lives. Effective ethics education requires educator and students to get in together in the muck of that unlived life and together discover the gold. The gold lies in reclaiming the hidden substance in our lives, our suppressed energy, and new sources of creative imagination. Jung claimed that alchemy, the conversion of the dull and dreary basic element of lead into gold was a psychic process. Ethics education is that process.

Ethics education as transformation of consciousness concerns a deep shift in awareness. A deep shift requires the entire person, not just the intellect, to take part in the new awareness. Experience is not just about knowing and understanding, it is about feeling psychically and somatically that new awareness. Experiential teaching aims to create that deep shift through the mirroring process where the individual or the group can see with new eyes who they are and how they behave. New eyes provide insights into the unconscious aspects of their motivations. They get to see how their ethical façade can range from genuine illusion to sanctimonious hypocrisy and downright lying (Neumann 1969, 41).

While the creation of a safe environment is critical to any type of education, when teaching ethics the issue of safety takes on a supreme value. In a teaching environment where ethics is the focal topic safety does not only mean that the student can say or experience things in the classroom without fear of criticism, censure or ridicule, but that the sense of safety is so palpable and accessible that she can turn it back on herself. By this I mean the student can create her own safety against her own self-condemnation and internal authority and find a new sense of freedom about who she is and what she thinks or feels without beating herself up.

(Reprinted with permission of author.)

Return to Part Two

Go to Part Four

For more information about Professor Beerel, please see the brief biography of her at the URL

HCS readers are invited to view other articles about SNHU or business ethics at our extensive, permanent archives under the Business Ethics section at the URL or the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Southern New Hampshire University at

The purpose of the distinguished chair in ethics is to promote and enhance students’ and community members’ awareness of ethics in personal and professional settings through teaching, community lectures and conferences. These events will foster understanding and assist in the application of lessons taught by current and classical ethicists to 21st-century settings.The chair serves as the cornerstone for an integrated university program in business ethics that encompasses the undergraduate and graduate levels. For more information about these events or about the ethics chair, contact Jane Yerrington at SNHU (603-668-2211 x2488) or visit the webpages of the ethics chair at

2000 © Hellenic Communication Service, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.