Guest post by Dr Mary C. Gentile
Most of us would like to bring our whole selves to our work and our professional lives.
But experience tells us that too often during the course of our careers, we face values conflicts – those times when what we believe is right and the way we want to manage our professional behaviour seems in opposition to the demands of clients, peers, bosses and our organisations themselves.
At those times, we often feel that we just don’t have a choice.
In my book, Giving Voice To Values: How To Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, I talk about how this conviction – that choice is not possible – can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But on the other hand, the belief that choice may be, in fact, possible can become just such a self-fulfilling prophecy as well!
Don’t make presumptions about the views and values of your colleagues
It is all about our starting assumptions. For example, if we believe we are the only one in our organisation who cares about the environmental impacts of our production processes, we will behave in ways that can make that belief a reality.
We stop asking questions because we think we know what others are going to say. We stop sharing new research or significant data, because we believe that our colleagues have already dismissed this information or would not pay attention anyway, or would dismiss us as naive or unrealistic.
We miss the opportunity to find allies with similar views because they are making the same assumptions about us that we have made about them.
We assume the worst about our bosses and peers, further eroding our sense of collegiality and mutual respect. In other words, we create – or at least exacerbate – the negative reality that we feared in the first place.
Remember that conflicts over values and ethics are normal
What if we bring the emotional level down by recognising that conflicts over values are a normal and inevitable part of business activity on a daily basis? They are not new or unique; they are even predictable in some sorts of situations.
If we “normalise” these sorts of conflicts, we can begin with an entirely different set of starting assumptions. We can face these conflicts the same way we would face any other business challenge, by gathering data; by assuming that others may likely see the same challenge as we do; by thinking about what is at stake for all affected parties and identifying who may be a likely ally and who may need to be persuaded; by identifying ways to reframe the challenge so as to mitigate the risks for those who are reluctant; and by recognising that dealing with such values conflicts may be an iterative process – just like any other important but difficult business decisions.
Too often, when we encounter values conflicts or ethical challenges at work, we assume that they are “moments of truth,” do-or-die decisions where we either take the moral position, being willing to fall on our swords to do so…or otherwise, where we just shut up and go along to get along, leaving our own values by the side of the road.
Ethical challenges should be viewed like any other business problems
My work suggests that if instead we see such ethical challenges as business problems to be solved, just like any other, and we allow ourselves to be just as strategic, just as tactical, just as intelligent about how we face them, we can make more choices possible.
And there are a set of skills and scripts and tools that can make values-driven action more feasible, more likely to succeed, and these scripts and skills become easier for us when we rehearse or practice them.
That is what the “Giving Voice To Values” methodology for values-driven leadership development is all about: creating a structured approach to this rehearsal for values-driven action.
It is all about creating a sort of “moral muscle memory”, a default to informed voice. This approach has been piloted in hundreds of settings – business education, companies themselves and more – on all seven continents and is growing all the time.
The main appeal is the practicality of the method and the sense of possibility it opens up. In other words, when it comes to values in business, having a choice is a matter of choice.
Mary C. Gentile, PhD, is Director of Giving Voice to Values, Senior Research Scholar at Babson College, Senior Advisor at Aspen Institute Business & Society Program, and an independent consultant on management education and leadership development. Mary was previously a faculty member and manager of case research at Harvard Business School and one of the principal architects of their Leadership, Ethics and Corporate Responsibility curriculum.
Mary will be touring Australia in October, presenting her ground-breaking new approach to values-driven decision making. If you’d like to learn more about ethical business practices, catch her in: