Ethics in Organizations: the Unconscious at Work

Part Four
By Annabel Beerel, MBA, PhD

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


In my classes and executive seminars I mostly use an experiential teaching pedagogy. My aim is to assist both individuals and the group observe real-time how group dynamics influence their moral actions. A strong part of the learning experience includes realizing their deception, dishonesty, and fear in the face of group pressures. They learn how the individual shadow and the group shadow often provide startling moral surprises. Both graduate students and business executives claim that as a result of these experiences they have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the concepts of ethics and morality. They also report they feel more adept at shaping a moral climate in their work place.

Using the experiential teaching approach I have described, many issues rise to the surface which help explain the dynamics of people’s inner war and their responses to the coercive power of groups. The issue of fear is one of the most pervasive and significant factors that influence people’s ethical behavior. Fear of our fear and fear of exposing our fear is one of the greatest inhibitors to morality. More often than not some element of fear is present when people grapple with ethical issues. This fear might be fear of making a mistake, fear of not going counter to the culture, fear of being caught, fear of being accepted, fear of appearing inadequate, fear of not having enough, and fear of not losing one’s power. These are some examples of how fear influences our behavior whatever our ethical principles might be. Facing our fears is the first important step towards leading a moral life.

A vignette might prove interesting. Recently I taught a ten week course in Leadership and Ethics to a group of graduate students. At the beginning of one session one of the students volunteered that she would like to discuss the topic of religion and ethics. By this time she had mentioned to the class on several occasions the fact that she was Jewish. She also made a point every week to sit next to another student, a Jewish Rabbi. The Rabbi was very open and vocal about his religious beliefs and would often refer to Jewish ethics as a justification for his behavior in class. Many students claimed to resent his style in the personal reflection papers they handed into me, but no one challenged him openly in the discussion sessions. Then one day the Rabbi missed class. This was the day the issue of religion and ethics was raised as a topic for discussion.

The class discussion was lively. No one mentioned the absence of the Rabbi student. When I spoke to my curiosity about this fact the students insisted that it was simply coincidence that they should talk about religion and ethics on the very day he was absent. Further inquiry revealed that the students feared discussing religion in the presence of the Rabbi as he was obviously a higher authority in this field and, according to them, made them feel incompetent. Even further inquiry on my part revealed that their suppressed anger with him led to their having a discussion on an issue they knew to be important to him when he could not take part. This was their opportunity to “punish” him for making them feel incompetent. Together the class had now created a discussion on religion and ethics to which he was not party and therefore he would now be the outsider and the incompetent one. When we reflected together on what the class had constructed the students were wide eyed in amazement insisting that none of their behaviors or intentions had been conscious. We can clearly see the group’s splitting and projection actions in this example.

The following week, several students welcomed the Rabbi back to class with apparent enthusiasm and told him unabashedly how much they had missed his presence and insights the prior week when they had discussed religion and ethics! The Jewish student who had suggested the topic for discussion promised to update him with what he had missed. As you can imagine, fear, dishonesty, and scapegoating provided plenty of content for the next weeks.

Beside fear and dishonesty, aggression, unowned competition, jealousy, shame and cruelty show up regularly in group experiences. Exploring these aspects of our behaviors requires patience and sensitivity. One challenge for the educator or facilitator, in this case, me, is that my behavior is as much grist for the mill as everyone else’s. This makes for the parity that Simms talks about in her article.

Another short anecdote might be helpful. At a recent seminar of senior executives I decided to give the group a small exercise. I provided each group member with a short article. I asked them to read the article, discuss it with one another, and consider what action they would take as a result of the information in the article and their discussions. I asked them as a group to appoint a spokesperson who would report their recommendation for action to me at the end of twenty minutes. I had provided each member of the group with a slightly different version of the article. While the story and content were essentially the same different pieces of information were missing in each version. I sat back to observe the group.

Having read the article various members started a discussion. The slower readers requested further time before the discussion should begin. Some agreed to wait while others simply ignored the request and continued talking. Eventually all members appeared ready to participate in the discussion. After several minutes a few participants realized they were referring to facts from their article that other members did not have. Now the conversation got really interesting. Some members’ anxiety increased enormously when they realized that they might not have all the facts or the correct ones. One person, however, insisted that it did not matter whether he had all the facts. He believed he could make a recommendation on the data he did have. A few group members started to talk over the others in an attempt to compare facts. It seemed their plan was to identify what was missing. Their progress was continuously impeded by various members insisting that they had the correct version of the article.

One woman appealed to a woman sitting next to her for help. The woman glowered at her and told her to read the article more carefully insisting that the missing facts, whatever they were, would be discovered in the last paragraph of the article. The woman who had appealed for help sat silently futilely reading and re-reading the last paragraph. After twenty minutes of relative chaos I asked the group for their recommendation.

Hastily a spokesperson was appointed. He claimed that the group could not make a decision because the information they had been provided was “inaccurate and faulty.” Another member of the group suddenly volunteered that he and a few others did have a recommendation and that inaccurate information was a fact of life that had to be worked with. Suddenly, several people turned to me and told me that this was an absurd exercise and irrelevant to the real world. One very agitated woman claimed that I had wasted the group’s time. As leader of the group I should have checked the accuracy of what I had handed out and not left it to them to deal with. Another man, also frustrated and angry claimed that my competence was in question. According to him, this was not the type of seminar executives should be made to participate in. He claimed I should have gotten my facts straight beforehand and given them something reasonable to work with.

At this point I asked the group to forget about the article and to observe their behavior in the here-and-now real time. I posed certain questions such as: Who had shown up today? What part of them was making them so fearful, frustrated or angry? What did they expect of me as the authority figure? Where was their responsibility for their experience? Why did they feel so powerless? How did they treat one another during the exercise? As they looked into this mirror, is the person they saw there the person they knew? When did this person in the mirror typically show up? And so on…

Obviously as I describe these events they do not have the impact that the live experience provides. While readers can readily imagine the emotions in the room it is more difficult to imagine the different responses the mirroring experience had on the seminar participants. Some members gained some immediate insights while others fled to denial and resistance. Whatever their response, it provided ample grist for the mill!


I am an ethics educator committed to ethics education. I believe that ethics education can benefit immensely from the incorporation of depth psychology into the curricula along with the use of an experiential pedagogy alongside more traditional approaches. I have found my training at the A.K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems (the U.S. counterpart to the Tavistock Institute in the United Kingdom) of enormous help in broadening my understanding of human behavior. The Group Relations experiential approach they use has helped me introduce experiential learning into my classes.

The feedback I get from my students, graduates and executives alike is that my classes and seminars are “an experience.” The vast majority claim as a result of this experience they experience a shift in self-understanding and in their world views. I have received many thank you notes from people saying I have changed their lives. Many say they have found new places in themselves they did not know were there. Others say they have become more attentive to group dynamics and how this positively and negatively influences their behavior. Yet others claim it was one of the most difficult yet rewarding learning experiences of their lives. As a consequence family life and work life are different.

Not all students take to the experiential approach and the level of resistance can be very high: That fact is in itself a learning opportunity for the resistors. The people who resist my approach claim experiential learning is too personal and too difficult. They can get furious and highly frustrated. Sometimes they try to incite the class to rebel. In a few cases one or two of the resistors have tried to take over teaching the class. All these behaviors provide grist for the mill. The educator needs to know how to mirror these behaviors back to the participants so that they gain new insights about themselves. In nine years of teaching hundreds of students from undergraduates to senior executive managers only two people have ever quit the class.

Holding the tension in the classroom is not easy. Students will initially resist a new teaching pedagogy preferring the chalk and talk or powerpoint show. It is hard work to adopt this pedagogy; far harder than any conventional teaching method. To be able to hold steady and still provide a learning experience in the face of strong resistance requires being able to get on the balcony and not get caught up in the group dynamic. It requires an ability to depersonalize issues and to keep the learning process going without students’ anxiety becoming excessive. Experiential teaching, like all things, improves with practice. First and foremost it requires a real belief and trust in the experiential learning process.

In my opinion retention of what is learned as a result of the experiential learning process is generally higher and deeper than from didactic methods. I have found that many people who attend my teaching seminars come back for more. Some want a “top up”, others claim they want to go deeper, and others say the experience always changes them in unexpected ways.

Have these people become more ethically sensitive or morally aware you might ask? In one way that cannot be answered in that I am not privy to the moral dilemmas of their daily lives. On the other hand, the mere fact they claim to be more self-and other-aware and that they wish to continue to make themselves vulnerable to personal evaluation and self-transformation would argue in favor of greater ethical sensitivity and moral awareness. At least they are consciously persisting with the ethical question “Who am I?” and “What do I stand for?” I believe Dewey, Sims, Torbert, Simms and Palmer would agree with me.

Can students withstand the pressure of the group and not succumb to “The Moral Muteness of Managers” is another difficult question to answer. Again the feedback I get is that after the course students feel less like victims who are unable to claim their moral courage and use their personal power. In the face of moral challenge or pressure they are more adept at seeking alternate options and working with others to resolve moral issues. From time to time I receive letters or emails from people who claim they have “worked wonders” by challenging the organization or their boss to respect the truth. I hope this will become an increasing trend. I recognize I am on a learning curve here too. I need to keep honing and sharpening my approach so that this trend does indeed take hold.

In conclusion I reiterate my belief that ethics education is about transformation.

Ethics education should not take the dualistic approach where ethics is only about the good. Rather, ethics is about the struggle between dark and light, between good and evil, between strength and vulnerability. Ethics education should address the inner war we all live and should help make our shadow more conscious so that we assimilate and integrate all the parts of our human nature. The more we can make the shadow conscious the less the unconscious can surprise us and others. Knowing our motivations and limitations gives us far greater strength and resilience than denying them. Facing our own inner dragons gives us moral courage we never knew possible. This should be the curricula of ethics education.

Ethics education should guide us in our struggle to perceive our complicity with evil. Naturally it is much more reassuring to see the world in terms of innocent victims and totally evil instigators of the monstrous violence and corruption we see about us. Ethics education should wake us up to our pseudoinnocence (May 1972) and help us see that there are no bystanders. The more we can take responsibility for our motivations and actions the greater our moral autonomy.

First and finally, ethics education should address that famous question: What will it make of you?

1Depth psychology is largely attributed to the work of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and his work on the persona and shadow. The idea of the shadow or unconscious is also attributable to Sigmund Freud.

2Originally Moral Philosophy described what I define as ethics in that it refers to the philosophical and theoretical reflection on morality. The definition of Morality remains the same in that it referred to the customs, precepts, and practices of people and cultures.

3The entire paper focuses on Ethics from a Western perspective.

4Socrates in his Apology, states: “…you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living,…” Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds, Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Bollingen Series LXXI, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989), 23.

5The terms “ethics” and “moral” come from Greek and Latin respectively, deriving their idea from the meaning of custom.

6Romans 7:19

7Taken from Thomas Merton’s poem “Hagia Sophia.” See McDonnell under references.

8Manuscript title “Silence is not Golden: The Shadow Side of Corporate America.” Submitted for publication, 2005.

9This research study is discussed in the manuscript of my book “Silence is not Golden: The Shadow Side of Corporate America.” Submitted for publication , fall 2005.

10I chose Niebuhr and Jung as reference points since they were key figures of the twentieth century. Both tried to make sense of group dynamics in organizational life.


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(Reprinted with permission of author.)

Return to Part Three

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

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