It can be extremely difficult to express your personal values at work, especially when confronted with questions of right vs. wrong. Issues become thornier when you’re facing a choice between degrees of right vs. right.
While research reveals universal values across cultures, not everyone agrees on what makes a worthy business decision:
Most of us want to bring our whole selves to work: our skills, ambitions and deeply held beliefs. We will inevitably encounter values conflicts during our careers, particularly when our goals and ideals clash with clients’, peers’, bosses’ and organizational expectations.
We have witnessed egregious managerial and financial misconduct during the first two decades of the 21st century. Employees at all levels assuredly observed ethical lapses, but found it hard to speak up and stop the foreseeable train wrecks. We can list plenty of examples, but none more outrageous than 2008’s financial implosions. Employees had to have known something was amiss, but they danced as long as the music played.
Past attempts at preparing business leaders to act ethically often failed – not because they couldn’t distinguish right from wrong, but because they didn’t know how to act on their values amid opposing pressures.
Many people believe blowing the whistle won’t do any good. And how can they effectively object without assuming personal risk?
Some of us also struggle with framing objections in a rational way, without assuming the role of “morals police.” We simply lack practice in holding values-based discussions.
Giving Voice to Values
In Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (Yale University Press, 2010), management expert Mary C. Gentile, PhD, asserts that being aware of ethical issues and analyzing one’s options may be insufficient in today’s complex work environment. Most of us fail to take appropriate values-based actions:
- Developing scripts for responding to the “reasons and rationalizations” others give for questionable practices
- Developing alternative action plans to questionable strategies
- Practicing how to deliver said scripts and action plans without invoking others’ defensiveness
We must confidently flex our moral muscles and habitually speak up to be true to our values. But when a boss wants to alter a financial report, a sales team misrepresents a product or you witness workplace discrimination, you’ll be faced with several key challenges:
- What should you say?
- To whom should you say it?
- When you craft a viable alternative, how can you summon the courage to act on your convictions?
Developing Effective Scripts
Answer the following questions when faced with a values conflict:
- Which action/decision do I believe is right?
- Will I encounter arguments against this course of action? (List them, and cite the reasons and rationalizations you’ll need to address.)
- What’s at stake for the key parties (including those who disagree with me)? What’s at stake for me?
- What are the most powerful and persuasive responses to others’ reasons and rationalizations? To whom, when and in what context should I make these arguments?
These questions are not about ethical analysis. They’re designed to help you understand the reasons and motivations – rational, emotional, organizational, personal, ethical, unethical – that guide one’s behavior and choices.
Also consider the following when seeking alternative solutions to questionable decisions:
- Long- and short-term thinking/goals
- Your organization’s broader purpose (not just the immediate conflict)
- The assumed definition of “competitive advantage”
- How you can be an agent of continuous improvement and actionable alternatives vs. the complaint department/morality police
- Slippery slopes that can become future ethical cliffs
- How the “game metaphor” affects business culture and decision-making (“It’s just how the game is played”)
- The costs to each affected party (and how to mitigate them to make your argument more appealing)
- Whether your target audience is pragmatic (vs. idealistic or opportunistic) – and how you can help them find ways to do the right thing
As you assess the personal risks you’ll take when going against a leader or the group consensus, be sure to weigh the costs of not speaking up.
When a situation impinges on our deepest values, we often leap to a place of righteousness and passion. While it’s tempting to appeal to morality and ethics, you’ll likely be more persuasive and constructive if your appeal is simpler and less emotional.
Develop alternative actions, and present your case calmly and rationally. Don’t remain silent when you care about an issue. Embrace the courage that comes from having a strategy grounded in reality and reason.
We have a choice to speak up when faced with questionable actions – one that becomes more easily accessible when we practice giving voice to our values.