Viewpoints: Shades of Gray

I had a strange dream last week. I was sitting in a dingy room at a long table with four of my section-mates. We were trying to solve a murder, and we were getting nowhere. I was convinced someone had the answer, and that everyone was trying to hide something. In fact, I knew a few things that I kept to myself. Adding to the paranoia, there was a mirror on one wall that I knew was one-way glass. Someone on the other side was recording our every move for later judgment.

On the surface, it sounds like the product of crossing multiple group projects with a “Law and Order” overdose. An obvious manifestation how frustrating teamwork can be. I found it strange, though, because I’ve had very positive experiences with HBS teams. So I’ve been reflecting on it and today, I was given reason to reconsider my interpretation.

I was having lunch with several section-mates and some of us admitted to holding back comments despite a universal desire for open debate. As expected, a lot of hesitance stems from the struggle to become comfortable with 90 new people. No one wants to make a fool of themselves. But another interesting reason surfaced. Some people are concerned about violating a high ethical standard while discussing potentially volatile topics.

We’ve been hearing about ethics everywhere. Scandals born of poor ethical judgment are in the news every day. Companies are increasing their internal communications about ethics and norms. I’ve even been at dinner parties where the role of morality in business came up between favorite wines and latest movies.

At HBS, we get an additional inoculation. Orientation introduced us to the school values and norms. LVDM in Foundations challenged us to scrutinize business decisions through moral lenses. Featured speakers and HBS leaders have dedicated large portions of their presentations to ethical leadership.

Ethics are important to all of us. Part of the reason we’re at HBS is to have our personal ethics challenged so we can become more grounded in our convictions. But is there a point at which all the talk begins to feel like pressure?

Every year new RC sections wrestle with ageless challenges to becoming a large but functional team. Every year there are also unique challenges for that particular set of sections to overcome. Perhaps it is our challenge this year to overcome a sense of heightened ethical scrutiny in order to speak our minds, test our personal ethics, and truly become a dream team.