Giving Voice to Values
WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT OUR VALUES IN THE WORKPLACE
This note 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. We focus here on situations where we believe that 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 on situations where we are tempted to do something we believe is wrong, for our own personal gain and because we believe we can get away with it. While this is a relevant topic, it is for another day. Now 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 would tend to support this view.1 Others might point out that the real problem in the starting assumption is the idea of voicing and acting on our values “effectively.” That is, given the organizational and personal barriers to acting on our values, success in this arena is elusive. Thus even if we don’t succumb to the selfjustifying 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 so2 We may believe that despite our David M. Messick and Max H. Bazerman, “Ethical Leadership and the Psychology of Decision Making,” Sloan Management Review, Winter 1996, Volume 37, Number 2, Reprint 3721, page 11. 2 “A 2003 study conducted by the Ethics Research Center uncovered that workers do not raise ethical issues on the job for two main reasons: 1) They fear personal retaliation; and 2) they are convinced that senior management won’t This material is part of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum collection, a collaboration between the Aspen Institute (www.AspenCBE.org) and The Yale School of Management. The Giving Voice to Values curriculum collection is in the Pilot Phase of development; do not distribute/reproduce without permission. 1
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 and/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 and/or financial and family disruptions. Certainly research on whistle-blowers suggests that they often suffer both personally and professionally. We all have seen, heard, or at least can imagine, stories of individuals who raised unpopular or uncomfortable questions and were subsequently seen as naïve or less than committed to doing what it takes to succeed.3 However, the type of action we are talking about here precedes, and hopefully makes unnecessary, external whistle-blowing. That is, we are talking about efforts to make change within an organization via problem re-definition, creative problem-solving, constructive engagement, persuasion, reasoning, personal example and leadership. 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 decisions than about right versus right. If this were not the case, a consequentialist approach to ethics (weighing the relative costs and benefits of different...