Book Excerpt: Giving Voice to Values

Recent events at BP, Toyota, and Goldman Sachs have made it painfully clear that just knowing what you think is right and even saying something about it—as several engineers and employees did prior to the BP oil spill disaster—is just not enough if you can't speak powerfully and persuasively, in a way that your peers and superiors can understand and respect.

Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What Is Right offers instructions on developing a powerful voice. My interviews with scholars and conversations with individuals who have voiced their values effectively have yielded a number of principles to help you do so throughout your career. One of the most powerful—and (unfortunately) counterintuitive—principles is to speak and act in ways that come naturally, rather than trying to develop an entirely new way to behave in challenging times. I hope the excerpt below will help guide you whenever you endeavor to do the right thing. —M.G.

Generate a "self-story" or personal narrative about the decision to voice and act on your values that is consistent with who you already are and that builds on the strengths and preferences that you already recognize in yourself. There are many ways to align your unique strengths and style with your values. If you view yourself as a "pragmatist," for example, find a way to see voicing your values as pragmatic.

One of the most powerful lenses through which to view values in the workplace—and one of the most powerful sources of the strength and confidence to act on those values—is the lens of self-knowledge. A knowledge of oneself allows the crafting and embracing of a desired self-image. Managers at all levels in their firms report that a significant enabler of values-based action is the clarity, commitment, and courage that is born of acting from our true center, finding alignment between who we already are and what we say and do. Some people say they are able to voice and act on their values because they have always had a strong sense of right and wrong and a need to act on this conviction. Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut describes this kind of moral courage as a person's commitment to "shape the pattern of his life—his thoughts, deeds, and attitudes—in accordance with the design of his nuclear self."

Not all people see themselves this way, however. Let's borrow a taxonomy from Gregory Dees and Peter Crampton's discussion of ethical negotiations. They argue that most people categorize themselves as "idealists" (who attempt to act on their moral ideals no matter what), "pragmatists" (who seek a balance between their material welfare and their moral ideals), or "opportunists" (who are driven exclusively by their own material welfare). Dees and Crampton point out that most people fall into more than one of these categories at different times and depending on the issue, but in our experience with business students and practitioners, the largest group is those who self-identify as pragmatists. They want to act on their values but do not wish to place themselves at a "systematic disadvantage" by doing so. This does not mean that they would never pay a price for voicing and acting on their values, but rather that they believe it may be credibly possible that they could be successful.

This seems a profoundly hopeful observation, because it suggests that there are many who would voice and act on their values if they believed they had a reasonable chance of effectiveness. This observation supports our primary starting assumption for Giving Voice to Values: that most of us want to find ways to voice and act on our values in the workplace and do so effectively. After all, to create and preserve ethical organizational cultures, not everyone has to voice and enact our deepest shared values—just enough of us do.

So if we can derive strength and energy from acting in a way that aligns with our values, it seems we can create that alignment and thereby enhance our willingness and ability to voice and act on our values by finding a way to view ourselves—by developing a "self-story," if you will—that integrates acting on our values with our (already held) sense of who we truly are. If we see ourselves as pragmatists, for example, let's find a way to view voicing our values as pragmatic, as opposed to idealistic or even naive. And let's come up with a life narrative that organizes our past experiences, as well as our current and expected future choices, around a version of our own abilities, preferences, and strengths that can be aligned with voicing and acting on our deepest moral values.

Some Strategies and Tools for Finding Your Most Powerful Voice:

1) Values
Know and appeal to a short list of widely shared values: e.g., honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion. In other words, don't assume too little—or too much—commonality with the viewpoints of others.

2) Choice
Believe you have a choice about voicing values by examining your own track record. Know what has enabled and disabled you in the past, so you can work with and around these factors. And recognize, respect, and appeal to the capacity for choice in others.

3) Normality
Expect values conflicts so that you approach them calmly and competently. Over-reaction can limit your choices unnecessarily.

4) Purpose
Define your personal and professional purpose explicitly and broadly before conflicts arise. What is the impact you most want to have? Similarly, appeal to a sense of purpose in others.

5) Self-Knowledge, Self-Image and Alignment
Generate a "self-story" about voicing and acting on your values that is consistent with who you are and that builds on your strengths. There are many ways to align your unique strengths and style with your values. If you view yourself as a "pragmatist," for example, find a way to view voicing your values as pragmatic.

6) Voice
Practice voicing your values in front of respected peers, using the style of expression with which you are most skillful and which is most appropriate to the situation, and inviting coaching and feedback. You are more likely to say those words that you have pre-scripted for yourself and already heard yourself express.

7) Reasons and Rationalizations
Anticipate the typical rationalizations given for ethically questionable behavior and identify counter-arguments. These rationalizations are predictable and vulnerable to reasoned response.

This article has been excerpted from Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right, Copyright © 2010 by Mary C. Gentile, with permission from Yale University Press.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE