Stop—Yammer Time! “Conversation Stoppers” and Ethical Discussions in the Workplace [Podcast Review]
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
This was written for CAS 842: Professional Communication Ethics in the Michigan State University Strategic Communications MA program.
Getting Ethics to Work Podcast
Sponsored by DePauw University’s Prindle Institute for Ethics, the “Getting Ethics to Work” (GEtW) podcast focuses on “tricky dilemmas” one may encounter in the workplace (Getting Ethics to Work, n.d., p. 1). Each episode is centered around a case study, and the hosts attempt to unpack issues and offer solutions for managers, coworkers, and subordinates (Getting Ethics to Work, n.d.). GEtW creators state that the podcast is intended to help listeners recognize convoluted moral issues, to adapt to moral challenges, and to provide the tools needed to strategize (Getting Ethics to Work, n.d.).
Getting to the Point
The guiding question of this episode is: when speaking about ethical issues in the workplace, why do people give themselves carte blanche to administer moral skepticism and to decide for others what is “right” and “wrong.” The podcast hosts define this process as the opposite of conversation, and the culprits as “conversation stoppers” (Cullison & Berry, 2020, 1:42). One does not require background information. Anyone who has stumbled upon an awkward ethical talk at work would grasp the concept.
Getting to the Credibility
The main host is Dr. Andrew Cullison, director of the Prindle Institute. He has published over fifteen peer-reviewed papers covering ethics, morals, faith, philosophy, and religion (Andrew Cullison, n.d.). A self-described ethicist, Dr. Cullison is the editor of the Continuum Companion to Epistemology. The producer, Kate Berry, cohosts the series. Berry, who poses questions as a would-be interviewer—does not disclose her credentials. There could be a hidden agenda if one views GEtW as a recruiting tool for DePauw University and/or an advertisement for the Prindle Institute. Many of the other episodes feature Prindle Institute scholars as the featured guests.
Getting to the Findings
“Right” and “wrong” exist in a murky place; similarly, these ethical values are even cloudier when talk of ethics occurs in the workplace. Unlike marketing, messaging, or strategic planning—where once can draw conclusions based on empirical data and metrics—ethics in the workplace is not measurable (Cullison & Berry, 2020). When critiquing scientific research, one can examine sample sizes, testing methods, potential confounds, or conflicts of interest.
But ethical discussions are tied to a personal sense of “right” and “wrong.” Seeking proof and enlightenment requires a pause-and-analysis process intrinsic to philosophy; however, telling someone they are “wrong” about an ethical issue is based on observed, imagined, or conceived disagreement (Cullison & Berry, 2020). Thus, the conversation stopper is one who shuts down a conversation abruptly by weaponizing ethical skepticism—even though he or she does not have the right to determine what is “right” for others (Cullison & Berry, 2020).
Getting to the Evidence
Berry asks why a person would act as a conversation stopper, and Dr. Cullison cites three motivations ranging from innocent to devious: the skeptic; the contrarian; and the nihilist (Cullison & Berry, 2020). The skeptic disagrees through deliberation, critical thought, calculated decisions, future-thinking, and hard questioning. Outside of morals, skepticism is appropriate and common in the corporate world (Cullison & Berry, 2020).
Secondly, a person may argue due to a lack of confidence or a joy of discrediting and arguing. This is the contrarian.These types may want to make a contribution, but as Dr. Cullison states, it is easier to be negative than to further the conversation (Cullison & Berry, 2020).
Finally, there is the bad-faith actor—the nihilist—who does not care about ethics or who, while showing appropriate sensitivity and commonly accepted deference, thinks “ethics is nonsense” and brands morality as a form of control (Cullison & Berry, 2020; 19:22). This latter motivation is the most nefarious of the three.
“Nefarious nihilism,” Berry says (Cullison & Berry, 2020, 19:46).
“Yes,” Dr. Cullison agrees (Cullison & Berry, 2020, 19:47).
Getting to the Solutions
Similar to his listing of conversation stopper archetypes, Dr. Cullison cites three ways to mitigate conversation stoppers:
Strategy: When a conversation stopper disagrees, seek a common ground. Different opinions do not negate progress. Each party should assess biases reflectively and ensure everyone is working with the same set of data or understandings.
Be comfortable with uncertainty: People often become anxious when they do not know how to proceed in a situation. Dr. Cullison explains that people must allow themselves to not know the answer—trusting they will find the path through collaboration and culture. By contrast, anxiety makes one more vulnerable to a conversation stopper because it can create an inflection point.
Talking Points: Leaders are hired to make difficult decisions, based on educated guesses. Individuals can utilize the same intellectual leaps of faith with ethical conversations. Acknowledge, ponder, and remain open. This succession will, at minimum, communicate critical thought; due diligence; and careful consideration. If we can only be responsible for how we act, then this process demonstrates an intellectual logic and prowess that ideally rebukes skeptical, contrarian, and nihilistic dominance.
Getting to the Outcome
“Do you that think people, in their workplace situations, will feel comfortable saying: ‘Hey, I don’t feel one hundred percent about this. I might be wrong,’ ” Berry asks (Cullison & Berry, 2020, 27:43).
One can view Dr. Cullison’s reply as the intended take-away for the episode. He states that one should temper honesty and uncertainty with confidence. It may prove uncomfortable, but the end-goal is balance. Berry suggests that moral decisions are not that different from everyday decisions, and Dr. Cullison agrees:
“If we are honest with ourselves about how murky some of the non-moral, non-ethical aspects of life are—and if we pay close attention to how we make decisions and weigh evidence in those cases—there are some pretty easy-to-draw lines and parallels over to the to the moral domain.” Cullison says (Cullison & Berry, 2020, 31:25).
Getting to the Conclusions
The podcast’s most effective moments were the lists. It is one thing to espouse ideas theoretically; however, a list of specifics helps listeners apply the concepts. Still, clearly defined concepts, authentic conversation, and a collaboration format (rather than an interviewer format) would improve this podcast’s dynamics and effectiveness. For example, Dr. Cullison states there are three types of (insert topic), but he doesn’t always cite three identifiers. Instead, he meanders through his examples and leaves the listener to distill and infer specific headers.
Additionally, the podcast vacillates between interpersonal communication and corporate communication for examples. It would be more helpful to stay in the corporate lane, considering the podcast’s title and theme. Furthermore, the question-and-answer format seems artificial—like when a source feeds an interviewer questions in advance to ensure credibility and likability.
As a final thought, I agree with Dr. Cullison’s overall assessment of ethical conversations in the workplace:
“It’s hard to get along with people when you are open about having a bad attitude” (Cullison & Berry, 2020, 19:28).
Andrew Cullison, Director. (n.d.). The Prindle Institute for Ethics. https://www.prindleinstitute.org/about/andrew-cullison-director/
Cullison, A, & Berry, K. (2020, June 23). Getting Ethics to Work. [Podcast]. https://www.prindleinstitute.org/podcast/conversation-stoppers/
Getting Ethics to Work. (n.d.). The Prindle Institute for Ethics. https://www.prindleinstitute.org/podcast/