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Ethics and 12 Angry Men

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12 Angry Men is one of the most lauded films in education and for good reason. The subject is timeless; the characters are so real and are easy to relate to. The story line is both touching and thought-provoking. I tend to appreciate detail in movies and this one was no different. The film opens with a long, ascending shot of the court house (giving us a sense of its foreboding nature). As we enter, we see a man coming out of a courtroom, obviously distressed. Although he is not a part of the narrative later, it puts us in the right mood for a courthouse and the serious nature of what goes on there. We see someone quite happy and seemingly celebrating a victory with friends. The first was a man who probably lost his case and was desperate and alone. The second is quite the opposite. The audience is informed, through this quick opening scene, that cases can go either way yet and that there can be severe consequences for the parties involved. A bailiff tells the celebrating group to quiet down whereupon we, as an audience, enter the court room.

Context for Discussion

It’s here; in this setting that we see the judge, the jurors, the accused and the lawyers for the first time. The judge then introduces the serious nature of the case before them, reminding them that the decision must be unanimous and that the litmus test is “reasonable doubt”. As the alternate jurors are excused, you can almost feel their sense of relief as they realize that they will not have to endure any more of this terrible story nor be obligated to decide the fate of someone so young possibly going to the electric chair. The remaining jurors are told to retire to the jury room and we see “the stage” for the first time that we will be watching for the next few hours. It’s a rather long shot that quickly conveys that premise. One by one, each of the jurors arrive on the scene. Their personalities are presented quickly. On parade for us is arrogance, shyness, playfulness, shallowness, introspection, simple mindedness, anger, discomfort and ignorance.

Process Drives Outcome

This temporary “organization” is a bit atypical as it was a very short duration, there were conflicting agendas. The final expectation of the outcome was in question. Sandra Christensen and John Kohls (19 shed some light on what this group was facing and perhaps the best way to handle the issue. They state that “An ethical decision is defined as a decision in which all stakeholders have been accorded intrinsic value by the decision maker. This is a process definition of ethics. There are some advantages to using this definition: (a) When it is extremely difficult to get consensus on specific outcomes required by ethics …..it is easier to get consensus on process…..(b) There will be controversy here as well, but it is more manageable (Ethical Decision Making in Times of Organizational Crisis, p. 332).

If you consider 12 Angry Men, juror #8, realizing he was alone in his conviction that there could be more to consider in the case and he decided to focus on the process rather than just fighting to get his point across. By so doing, he was able (by working the process over and over again) to change the tide of thought and the rest of the group (organization) began to have “reasonable doubt”. He convinced the group that the boy had a tough upbringing, that he had no breaks in life, had been abused and that with no one on his side, he deserved consideration from this body. He persisted until he was heard. This was not easy and the leadership he displayed was quite remarkable.

Juror #8 was not looking for a specific a outcome but was seeking an ethical decision in the case and he felt strongly that they owed the boy, at the very least, to follow legal procedure and devote some time to the case prior to arriving at a verdict. His comment that “we should at least talk about it” was a defining statement for the thesis as it relates to process delivering a greater chance for an ethical outcome. Christensen and Kohl shed some further light on this process by stating that “We have defined an ethical decision as one that accords intrinsic value to all stakeholders. When all stakeholders are not explicitly considered, a decision is by our definition not ethical. We have defined crises as events that are ambiguous, threaten organizational survival, have high impact, and are characterized by time pressures” (p. 333). This definition is nicely illustrated in the case we are discussing.

John Gibb as quoted in Craig Johnson’s “Ethics in the Workplace – Tools and Tactics for Organizational Transformation” states that “Our moral duty as a group is to engage in supportive communication that contributes to a positive emotional climate and accurate understanding. At the same time, we need to draw attention to the comments of others that spark defensive reactions”. He then names the six behavior pairs that encourage members to be defensive or supportive (p. 152). By looking at each of these behaviors, the personalities of each of the jurors can be easily seen:

1. Evaluation vs. Description – Evaluative messages are judgmental, descriptive messages are much more positive. 2. Control vs. Problem Orientation- A controlling message implies that the recipient is inadequate while problem solving messages drive collaboration. 3. Strategy vs. Spontaneity – Strategic communications are manipulative in nature and hide true motivations. Spontaneity however reduces defensiveness. 4. Neutrality vs. Empathy – Neutral messages carry little warmth i.e., “Don’t worry”. Empathetic statements communicate reassurance and acceptance. 5. Superiority vs. Equality – One-upmanship provokes a defensive response whereas supportive communicators treat others as cohorts. 6. Certainty vs. Provisionalism – Dogmatic, inflexible “know it all’s” messaging. Conversely, provisional communication seeks to “dig in” and accept input from others.

Gibb’s capstone message to this concept is his discussion of “Standing Alone”. He notes that “The final responsibility may be the toughest to assume. Being in the minority is never easy but it runs contrary to our strong desire to be liked and accepted by others. We can expect criticism, ridicule, and other forms of group pressure when we offer dissenting ideas that challenge the majority opinion” (p. 152). Juror #8 defines this concept. I find it interesting that we are told that he’s an architect by trade as he is the draftsman of the entire turnaround of opinion of the group.

Craig E. Johnson in his work Ethics in the Workplace, (2007, p. 33) outlines five components of personal ethical development. In the first component, he sketches some important tips to managing our “shadows” or the unpleasant aspects of ourselves. Four of these tips specifically pertain to what should be taking place in that hot, sultry room. They are: * Take personal responsibility for your actions

* Learn from your mistakes
* Find a supportive partner (the old man)
* Accept criticism
Had more of the members of this temporary organization followed these simple guidelines of ethical behavior, the conclusions finally reached could most likely have been accomplished in a much shorter period of time.


12 Angry Men is a pivotal film and a wonderful study in organizational dynamics and leadership. The film demonstrates the dynamics of human interaction, the lives and influences that make them who they are, the DNA that help to define them and the motivations that drive them. It’s the undercurrents that begin to play out when the group is brought together that reveal process and outcomes only possible with the group as a whole. In his work “Love and Profit”, Jim Autry talks about workplace as a community. He notes: “By invoking a metaphor of community, we imply that we….are bound by a fellowship of endeavor in which we commit to mutual goals, in which we contribute to the best of our abilities, in which each contribution is recognized and credited, in which there is a forum for all voices to be heard, in which our success of the common enterprise and to the success of others, in which we can disagree and have different viewpoints without withdrawing from the community, in which we are free to express how we feel as well as what we think, in which our value to society is directly related to the quality of our commitment and effort, and in which we take care of each other” (p. 74).

This observation, albeit a very long sentence, says much about the importance of respectful interaction in a communal environment. As we see in this case, leadership was not about position. Juror #1 was designated but was incompetent in the role. It was Juror #8, a quiet, cerebral, unassuming, humble man, armed only with conviction and caring that turned the tide of the decision that saved a boy’s life. Kouzes & Posner provide an even more extreme example (vs. what we consider normal in an organizational leadership analysis). They discuss the success of a new model at General Mills in which no formal leader is assigned to the team.

Rather, they speak of leadership as a skill set and procedures that can be learned regardless of formal positioning. They were able to demonstrate that self-led teams in their organization are more successful at achieving goals than management groups (Credibility, p. 156). The formal leadership in this case was so weak that an informal team developed and in the end, were successful. We are never told whether or not the boy, in reality was guilty or not guilty in the killing of his father but it is immaterial to the actual story. The accomplishment of the team was to produce an outcome that served the purpose for which they were formed, to decide whether or not the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This they accomplished and the goal of the process was realized.


Autry, J.A. (1991), Love and Profit, New York, Morrow Publishers. Christensen, Sandra & Kohls, John, (2003) Ethical Decision Making in Times of Organizational Crisis, BUSINESS & SOCIETY, Vol. 42 No. 3. Gibb, J.R., (1961), Defensive Communication, Journal of Communication, 11-12, 141-148. Johnson, Craig E., (2007), Ethics in the Workplace – Tools and Tactics for Organizational Transformation, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications.

Kouzes, James M. & Posner, Barry Z. (1993), Credibility, San Francisco, CA. Jossey – Bass

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