This book begins with the assumption that most of us want to find ways to voice and act on our values in the workplace, and to do so effectively. The focus here is on those times and situations when we believe we know what is right and want to do it, but we experience external pressures—from our boss, our colleagues, our customers—to do otherwise. As a result, we are not sure how to raise our concerns. The focus here is not so much on situations where we are tempted to do something we believe is wrong, for our own personal gain or because we think we can get away with it. While that is a relevant topic, it is one for another day.
Most outcries about unethical behavior in business tend to focus on personal greed or ambition, but this book is concerned with those times when we are really not grabbing for money or power. The thesis here is that if enough of us felt empowered—and were skillful and practiced enough—to voice and act on our values effectively on those occasions when our best selves are in the driver’s seat, business would be a different place. In other words, this book is not about changing who we are, but rather it is about empowering the parts of us that already want to do the right thing. Even though we may all sometimes act unethically, the fact is that we all do sometimes also act ethically. This book is about expanding that second set.
Some might say that what we really want is to be able to feel like we have voiced and acted on our values. And this desire may lead us just as easily—perhaps more easily—to focus our energy on finding ways to rationalize what we say and do such that it appears consistent with our values, as opposed to focusing our energy on finding ways to actually be consistent with our values. Research on self-bias offers some support for this view.
Others might point out that the real challenge before us is one of efficacy. That is, given the organizational and personal barriers to acting on our values, success in this arena can be mighty elusive. Thus even if we don’t succumb to the self-justifying bias noted above, many—if not most—of us will abandon attempts to follow our values simply because we don’t believe it is possible to do so. We may believe that despite our best efforts and courage, we will not be able to change the offending organizational practice or influence the offending individuals, especially if they are our superiors in the organization or if they appear to be in the majority.
In addition, we may fear the price we would be forced to pay—anything from social disapproval to negative career consequences or financial and family disruptions. Certainly research on whistle–blowers who speak up outside their own organization to the media, the police, or regulatory bodies suggests that they often suffer both personally and professionally. And although the type of action we are talking about here precedes, and hopefully makes unnecessary, external whistleblowing, there can be negative consequences even for those who raise uncomfortable questions inside their organizations. We all have seen, heard, or at least can imagine stories of individuals who raised unpopular or uncomfortable questions and were subsequently seen as naive or less than committed to doing what it takes to succeed. They may be excluded from the inner circle or from the conversations where real strategy is set, thereby hurting their career trajectory and limiting their ability to have an impact anyway.
And of course it is important not to underestimate how difficult it can be to even know what our own core values are, and whether or not a particular practice conflicts with them. As has been often pointed out by thoughtful people, ranging from ethicists to political scientists, many of the thorniest choices we face in our lives are less about right versus wrong than about right versus right. If this were not the case, a consequentialist approach to ethics (weighing the relative costs and benefits of different actions) would be both easier to apply and much less necessary. As Robert Kane writes in Through the Moral Maze: “The first of many confusions that people have about ethics concerns the value of thinking about it. Ethical argument is not primarily directed at those who are bent on doing evil. It is directed in the first instance not at bad people, but at good people whose convictions are being drained by intellectual and moral confusions.”
Given all these caveats and concerns about the framing of our opening assumption here—that is, the assumption that most of us want to find ways to voice and act on our values in the workplace, and to do so effectively—it is important to clarify that this book is not about denying the very human tendency to rationalize in the service of self-justification. It does not downplay the obstacles to effective action in the face of values conflicts, or try to deny the risks. It does not even seek to avoid the complexities involved in actually clarifying what actions best support our values.
Rather, this book is about acknowledging that nevertheless, some people do voice and act on their values, and do so effectively. There is much to be learned from looking at how and why they do so. They do so not simply in spite of each of the above objections, but also because of their sophisticated understanding of the objections themselves. That is, they make an effort to know themselves and to better understand others, diminishing the impact of self-justifying rationalizations. They think strategically about how to implement their values, thereby diminishing the risks they face; and when the risks are unavoidable, they view them clear-eyed and prepare themselves. After all, risk management is not always about avoiding risks; rather it is often about anticipating, preparing for, and mitigating them. And they learn to communicate about values openly and clearly, thus ensuring that they have access to more and better information with which to make considered decisions. That is, we are talking about efforts to make change within an organization via problem redefinition, creative problem solving, constructive engagement, persuasion, reasoning, personal example, and leadership.
This book is about ways to think about and accomplish all of these things and so finally, this book is about acknowledging and enabling choice. . . .
How This Book Is Organized
The book is divided into nine chapters, which walk the reader through the various assumptions behind its practical approach to values conflicts and discuss examples of how these ways of thinking can lead to effective and usable scripts and action plans for voicing our values.
Chapter 1: Giving Voice to Our Values: The Thought Experiment
The opening chapter explains the thought experiment at the heart of the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) approach and clarifies why this framing is important. For the experiment to have traction, the working hypotheses behind it must be explicit, so this chapter names our twelve starting assumptions and explains the reasoning and the stories behind them. These assumptions describe the attitudes, beliefs, and capacities that enable our efforts to voice and act on our values. The chapter invites readers to suspend disbelief and try on an approach to values based behavior that can draw the best from us, fueling creativity, confidence, and skillful execution.
As Michael C. Jensen, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus at Harvard Business School, puts it: “GVV shifts the focus away from debates about what the ‘right’ answer to an ethical challenge might be and places the focus on how to act on one’s values in a particular situation. This approach provides people the opportunity to practice handling the discomfort, threats, isolation, and embarrassment people face in such situations.”
Finally, the first chapter points out that GVV is an individual strategy and that individuals exist within organizations that can limit or enhance the options available to address values conflicts. This reality is mentioned not as a reason to avoid voicing our values, but as another opportunity to reframe the choice. This book shares stories to illustrate strategies available for us to act as individuals within organizations that may not always be supportive.
The next seven chapters each explore one of the pillars or foundational concepts in the Giving Voice to Values approach.
Chapter 2: Values: What They Are and What They Are Not
Although we may quibble around the edges, knowing that, in general, certain values are widely shared gives us both a useful (because of its commonality) and manageable (because of its brevity) foundation to which we can refer when trying to address values conflicts in the workplace. Recognizing that our differences or disagreements about values, though real, do not preclude the development and pursuit of shared goals is a useful primary position to adopt when we think about how to voice and act on those values. Chapter 2 identifies the types of values that are widely shared—across cultures and contexts—and also those that may not be. Stories illustrate the different ways to effectively appeal to the most commonly shared values when facing ethical conflicts, as well as the mindset needed to be effective in doing so—avoiding parochialism, preaching, paternalism, and pettiness.
Chapter 3: A Tale of Two Stories: The Power of Choice
We have noticed an interesting phenomenon in our interviews with managers and students. When asked to talk about a time when they experienced a values conflict in the workplace and how they handled it, they engage in some interesting self-reflection. The level of self-examination possible when one begins from the premise that someone has acted on their values is striking. This starting point seems to free them up to raise the counter examples—perhaps because they feel less defensive.
Recognizing the fact that we are all capable of speaking and acting on our values, as well as the fact that we have not always done so, is both empowering and enlightening. The managerial stories in Chapter 3 illustrate the freedom, reativity, and confidence that are unleashed once values conflicts are truly embraced as choices. Exercises to encourage this kind of self-recognition and tools for this kind of problem reframing are outlined.
Chapter 4: It’s Only Normal
If we approach our business careers with the expectation that we will face values conflicts and if we anticipate some of the most common types of conflicts in our own intended industry and functional area, we can minimize the disabling effect that surprise can have. We will also likely find ourselves framing our attempts to speak about these issues in a less emotional manner and more as a matter of course. Such an approach can have the effect of normalizing and defusing the topic not only for ourselves but also for the individuals with whom we hope to discuss them. Additionally, by anticipating and normalizing the idea that we will have to take risks—even career-threatening ones—at some point in our work lives, we expand our vision of what the degrees of freedom are in our decision making. Chapter 4 illustrates the powerful impact that this kind of normalization can have through managerial stories and provides tools for building this kind of frame and set of expectations in ourselves.
Chapter 5: What Am I Working For?
If we define our professional purpose explicitly and broadly (including means as well as ends, for example, or addressing impacts beyond short-term profitability), we have an easier time seeing values conflicts as an expected part of doing business, with costs and benefits that do not seem unusual or especially daunting in comparison with other business challenges.
Chapter 5 discusses the different levels of purpose (personal, professional, organizational, societal) and illustrates the differential impacts of a narrow versus a broad purpose definition at each level. Managerial stories illustrate how we can take control of our own purpose, by naming it explicitly and by working out a map of intersections among and between the different levels. Seeming conflicts can be reframed as conscious choices when the issue of purpose is addressed explicitly.
Chapter 6: Playing to My Strengths: Self-Knowledge, Self-Image and Alignment
Given the strength and energy that come from acting in a way that is in alignment with our core self, we can enhance our willingness and ability to voice and act on our values by finding a way to view ourselves—by writing a “self-story,” if you will—that integrates acting on our values with our sense of who we truly are. If we see ourselves as “pragmatists,” for example, let us find a way to view voicing our values as pragmatic.
Chapter 6 illustrates how individual managers have reframed their ethical choices to align them with a self-image in which they felt most comfortable and most competent at voicing their values. The chapter presents a set of self-assessment criteria—identified through our interviews with managers who have already successfully acted on their values—and suggestions for crafting a “self-story” that provides clues as to how to reframe the values conflicts each of us may encounter so that voicing our values will be the most comfortable default position.
Chapter 7: Finding My Voice
To make it more likely that we do speak up about values conflicts in the workplace, it is important to recognize that there are many different ways to express our values (for example, assertion, questioning, research, and providing new data; persuasion, negotiation, setting an example, identifying allies); that some may work better in some circumstances than others; that we may be more skillful or simply more likely to use one approach than another, and so our ability to see a way to use that particular approach may be the most important determining factor in whether or not we speak; that some organizational contexts and conditions (and some sorts of leaders) will have a strong impact on our own and others’ likelihood of expressing values; and that there are things we can do to make it more likely that we will voice our values and that we will do so effectively: namely, reflection, practice, and coaching.
Chapter 7 illustrates research findings about the likelihood and impact of self-expression with individual stories of managers who developed a voice over the course of a career. The impacts of organizational culture and relationships on our ability to use our voice are emphasized, as well as ways that individuals may work to reframe and revise these organizational impacts when necessary.
This chapter also revisits the idea of a “self-story,” introduced in the previous chapter, and suggests that the way we frame our level and position within our careers and within our own story can either encourage or discourage voice. There are degrees of freedom and different constraints that we experience differently depending on our age, level of experience, seniority in a firm or in a profession, positional power, and so on. Rather than using one’s particular position in life, a firm, or a career as a rationale for limiting our options for voice, GVV explicitly reframes these realities—or rewrites the story—so that we can find the power in our positions.
Chapter 8: Reasons and Rationalizations
When we encounter values conflicts in the workplace, we often face barriers in the form of “reasons and rationalizations” for pursuing a particular course of action that can confound our best attempts to fulfill our own sense of organizational and personal purpose. One Harvard professor even called these “professional rationalizations.”
If we begin to recognize categories of argument or reasons that we typically hear when someone is defending a behavior that feels ethically questionable, we can develop and practice some useful questions, persuasive arguments, and ways of framing our own role or purpose, as well as that of our organization, which can help us respond persuasively to these common arguments. Finally, the act of recognizing and naming the category of argument can reduce its power because it is no longer unconscious or assumed; we have made it discussable and even put it into play with equally or hopefully stronger counterarguments. Choice then becomes more possible.
Chapter 8 presents a list of commonly heard “professional rationalizations” in the business world and offers illustrations of individuals who crafted and delivered effective responses. Some of the most useful tools for identifying, deconstructing, and responding to these rationalizations are outlined as well. Readers will come away from this chapter with a tool kit that can be used to address many of the most commonly encountered arguments for unethical business behavior, as well as exemplary stories of folks who did just that.
Chapter 9: Putting It to Work
In this chapter, we return full circle to the stories from the Introduction—from the Giving Voice to Values initiative itself—to illustrate the power of the approach and to offer an invitation to be part of a growing cohort of peer coaches in business schools and business organizations who are practicing, mastering, and sharing this powerful thought experiment in ways that empower all of us to more fully, more often, and more effectively voice and act on our values.