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managing books

Giving Voice to Values

By Mary Gentile

(Yale University Press, 273 pages, $17.97)


The ethical outages at prominent companies in recent years has led us to think that far too many business people are morally challenged or idiots who can't tell right from wrong. That has led to a call for ethical training at business schools and in leadership development programs, to root out potential wrongdoers and explain moral values and behaviour to those without proper moorings.

But Mary Gentile, who teaches values at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., thinks that's a faulty starting point. Most people, she believes, can tell right from wrong and are determined to act in an ethical manner. They just don't know how to raise their concerns effectively.

"If enough of us felt empowered – and were skillful and practised 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," she writes in Giving Voice To Values.

We need, therefore, to build what she calls an ethical muscle. We need to learn what to say, to whom, and how, when something is happening that concerns us ethically. We need to develop scripts and implementation plans to overcome the reasons and rationalizations given for the practices we question, and we need to practise delivering those scripts.

This is not about stridency; it is not about making passionate speeches declaring that the proposal being considered is morally bankrupt. It is more nuanced than that.

"Giving voice may mean simply asking the well-framed and well-timed question that allows people to think in a new way about a situation," Dr. Gentile writes. "Or it may mean working to make sure that certain information is included in a proposal that allows decision makers to see … wider potential impacts for their choices … It may mean speaking quietly, behind the scenes, with someone who is better positioned than we are to raise an issue. Or it may mean simply finding another, ethically acceptable way to accomplish an assigned task."

When Dr. Gentile runs workshops, she begins by asking participants to recall a time when their values conflicted with what they were expected to do about a specific management decision and they spoke up to try to resolve the situation. After exploring that scenario, participants are then asked to recall a situation when they did not speak up and act.

The stories that arise from the two questions make it clear that although we may be heroes in our own mind, we don't always courageously speak up when our values are being compromised. Exploring how we act in certain situations also reveals individual and organizational motivators and inhibitors.

Dr. Gentile has found that people are more likely to speak up when they have allies. They are more effective when they can approach various people sequentially, building support; and take time to do their homework, gaining as much information as possible.

In seeking information and support, it is usually better to begin by asking questions rather than giving speeches. It helps to understand the needs, fears, and motivations of the people whose support you will need, and to reframe the situation in a more acceptable manner to them.

Her approach is based on a series of assumptions, such as:

–I want to voice and act upon my values.

–It is easier for me to voice my values in some contexts than others, because of organizational enablers such as culture, policies, and even incentives.

–I am more likely to voice my values if I have practised how to respond to frequently encountered conflicts.

–My example is powerful, and if I voice my values it might encourage others to do so as well.

–The better I know myself, the more I can prepare to play to my strengths and, when necessary, protect myself from weaknesses.

–I am not alone, and will be supported, perhaps internally, and certainly externally by friends and family.

–Although I may not always succeed, voicing and acting on my values is worth doing.

–Voicing my values leads to better decisions.

–The more I believe it is possible to voice and act on my values, the more likely I will do so.

Voicing your values obviously won't work in some pernicious workplace situations. But Dr. Gentile shows that with the proper techniques, we may be able to be effective in more situations than we realize.

Her book is somewhat academic, certainly not a crisp, step-by-step guidebook. But it is a unique approach, with a helpful exploration of the challenges many people face in their work.