Values Conflicts

Most of us want to bring our “whole selves” to work. Yet experience and research demonstrate that many of us will encounter values conflicts in our careers, when the way we want to live and the things we want to accomplish seem in conflict with the expectations of our clients, our peers, our bosses and/or our organizations. The Giving Voice to Values pedagogy and curriculum are designed to help individuals learn to recognize, clarify, speak and act on their values when those conflicts arise.

The focus here is POST-decision-making. It is not about deciding what the right thing is. Rather, it is about how a manager raises these issues in an effective manner, what he/she needs to do and say in order to be heard, and how to try to correct an existing course of action when necessary.

Distinctive features of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum include:

  1. A focus on positive examples of times when folks have found ways to voice, and thereby implement, their values in the workplace
  2. An emphasis on the importance of finding an alignment between one’s individual sense of purpose and that of the organization (which involves self-assessment and focus on individual strengths)
  3. The opportunity to construct and practice responses to the most frequently heard reasons and rationalizations for not acting on one’s values
  4. The opportunity to build commitment by providing repeated opportunities for participants to practice delivering their responses and to learn to provide peer feedback and coaching to enhance effectiveness

Deciding to Speak … and Listen

Research and interviews reveal that there are many different ways to voice our values: looking for a win/win solution, changing the boss’ mind through persuasion and logic, going over the boss’ head within the organization, building coalitions of like-minded employees, and so on. But the pivotal moment is deciding to speak.

It’s also important to understand that since there are so many different ways to voice our values, we can look for the approach that not only seems most likely to be effective in our particular situation, but also the one that is most comfortable, given our own personal style of communication and personality. Finally, there are things we can do to make it more likely that we will actually voice our values and that we will do so effectively: namely, pre-scripting, practice and coaching.

The point here is that just because we are addressing a question of values and ethics does not mean that we need to preach. Often, the very fact that a situation has an ethical component to it leads us to feel that we must gear ourselves up to be saints or even martyrs; in reality, we often just need to be competent and skillful. We can approach the communication challenge with the same analytical and personal capabilities that we would use in any other situation, whether it is convincing our professor to give us an extension on our final paper or persuading our manager to extend a new product launch deadline. And as with other communication challenges, we will want to consider the needs and desires and emotional investments of the individuals to whom we are speaking, as opposed to focusing exclusively on our own. Reframing “voice” as “dialogue,” which includes a goodly dollop of “listening,” is another important piece of the recipe.

Personal Strengths

It’s also important to use the communication style with which we are most skilled and comfortable. For example, if our most effective style of communication is story-telling and the use of metaphor, we would likely want to play to our strengths, whether the topic is a moral conflict or not. Or, if we are uncomfortable with confrontation, we may choose to raise our objections through a line of careful questioning rather than assertion. Even if we are not convinced that our personal style will be most effective in a particular situation, we are most likely to speak if we start from the strengths we have, rather than attempting to be an entirely different type of person at a time of stress.

And of course, the power and influence of our context should not be underestimated. It’s very hard to stand up against the majority or against an authority in any situation, let alone an ethically charged one. Nevertheless, we all know of times when we have seen individuals resist these pressures; we probably can think of some times when we have done so ourselves.

Research and experience suggest that an explicit attempt to test our ideas with a diverse set of colleagues, and also perhaps to seek support from such a group both inside and outside the organization, may help us resist some of the unconscious influence. It may even help us find new ways of expressing our values that would not have occurred to us if we didn’t seek out different perspectives.

For a discussion of commonly confronted rationalizations and potential responses, please see this post’s companion piece, “Giving Voice to Values: How to Counter Rationalizations Rationally.” 

Mary Gentile, through the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, is launching a new MOOC, “Ethical Leadership Through Giving Voice to Values,” an introduction to using the values-driven, action-oriented GVV approach in the workplace, business education and life. Available through Coursera, the four-week online course is free of charge ($79 for a course certificate).

The preceding is excerpted from Mary Gentile’s case Giving Voice to Values: Brief Introduction, which is available through Darden Business Publishing.

The material is part of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum. The Yale School of Management was the founding partner, along with the Aspen Institute, which also served as the incubator for GVV. From 2009 to 2015, GVV was hosted and supported by Babson College. Darden Business Publishing is pleased to present the material in its original form.