Reasons and Rationalizations

When we encounter values conflicts in the workplace, we often face barriers that appear in the form of “reasons and rationalizations” for pursuing a particular course of action. These obstacles can confound our best attempts to fulfill our own sense of organizational and personal purpose. These are the objections you hear from your colleagues when you try to point out an ethical problem in the way things are being done. Sometimes you don’t even hear them because they are the unspoken assumptions — seeming truisms — of the organization.

It is extremely difficult to make a strong argument against the “prevailing winds” if you feel you are in the minority, or if you don’t feel you have the time to come up with a workable alternative or if you don’t want to take the chance to present a half-baked response. So the Giving Voice to Values curriculum is about creating a time and space to be in the majority, with sufficient time to come up with a fully baked and pre-tested response to some of the most common challenges you are likely to face in your workplace.

In order to develop this ability, we want to consider the challenging situation carefully and answer the following questions:

  • What are the main arguments you are trying to counter? What are the reasons and rationalizations you need to address?
  • What’s at stake for the key parties, including those who disagree with you? What’s at stake for you?
  • What levers can you use to influence those who disagree with you?
  • What is your most powerful and persuasive response to the reasons and rationalizations you need to address? To whom should the argument be made? When and in what context?

Categories of Conflict

Interestingly, these questions are not asking us to apply ethical analysis. Rather, they are all about understanding the reasons and motivations — both rational and emotional, organizational and personal, ethical and perhaps unethical — that guide the behavior and choices of those with whom we want to communicate.

What can make this approach particularly useful for tackling values-based conflicts is that, after a while, we will begin to recognize familiar categories of argument or reasons that we typically hear from someone defending an ethically questionable behavior. And, similarly, there are some useful questions, persuasive arguments and ways of framing our own role/purpose, and that of our organization, which can help us respond persuasively to these frequent arguments.

Finally, the very act of recognizing and naming the argument can reduce its power because it is no longer unconscious or assumed; we have made it discussable and even put it into play with equally, or hopefully stronger, counterarguments. Choice becomes possible, and that is what this note is all about.

Let’s take a moment to identify a few of the familiar categories of values conflict and categories of rationalization or argument, as well as some possible types of response — by way of illustration.

Rushworth Kidder suggests that most ethical dilemmas fall into four categories or patterns:

  • “Truth versus loyalty”
  • “Individual versus community”
  • “Short term versus long term”
  • “Justice versus mercy”[i]

You will note that Kidder is talking here about conflicting values, not values versus a lack of values. Many times, we do face situations where our own values are conflicted or torn. But sometimes, the conflict exists more in the way the dilemma is described or framed. Thus, being prepared to recognize the ways that the framing of a choice may call different values into play can be useful.

For example, a colleague in our company sales team may use an appeal to personal loyalty as a way to persuade us to violate our commitment to integrity, when he or she asks us to keep silent about their deceptive sales tactics. But recognizing the pattern in this values conflict — that is, “truth versus loyalty” — may enable us to feel more prepared and certain of our response. The conflict moves from the particular and the immediate moment into a broader, more general context, and we begin to see it more clearly at this distance. Once the pattern is clear, we might recognize that our colleague is not showing the same loyalty to us (by respecting our personal integrity) that he or she is asking from us.

Common Arguments

We can also consider the kinds of argument or rationalization that we often encounter in values conflicts. Some of the most common arguments include:

  • Expected or Standard Practice: “Everyone does this, so it’s really standard practice. It’s even expected.”
  • Materiality: “The impact of this action is not material. It doesn’t really hurt anyone.”
  • Locus of Responsibility: “This is not my responsibility; I’m just following orders here.”
  • Locus of Loyalty: “I know this isn’t quite fair to the customer but I don’t want to hurt my reports/team/boss/company.”

As we begin to recognize these categories of argument, we will become more adept at drawing upon responses to each of them. For example, the appeal to “expected or standard practice” is often an exaggeration. If everyone actually were doing “it” (whatever “it” is), what would be the consequences for business practice and customer trust? If the practice is really accepted, why are there so often laws, rules and/or policies against it? Would you be comfortable if everyone knew you were doing this? Who wouldn’t you want to know? And so on.

With regard to the “materiality” argument, it becomes important to recognize that determinations of materiality are often ambiguous. Rather than being objective, they can depend on the method of measurement being employed.[ii] Additionally, some practices are considered fraudulent, regardless of their relative size; that is, some things can’t be just a little wrong.[iii]

The question of “responsibility” is another well-considered topic in ethics literature, and numerous guidelines have been developed for assessing whether or not we are required to act.[iv] The point here, though, is that this argument is often used when we know we are uncomfortable with a decision or action but are afraid of the consequences of voicing and acting upon that judgment. Therefore, the individual using this argument has already acknowledged that they don’t like the situation, and this provides an opening for further discussion.

Finally, as noted earlier, the question and definition of loyalty can be framed in multiple ways. For example, are we “loyal” when we protect the financial bonus of our team this quarter or when we protect their long-term reputation and productivity?

For an overview of Giving Voice to Values, please see this post’s companion piece, “Giving Voice to Values: An Overview,” which prepares participants to act effectively and with integrity under pressure.

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.

[i] Rushworth M. Kidder, Moral Courage: Taking Action When Your Values Are Put to the Test (New York: William Morrow, HarperCollins Publishers Ind., 2005), Page 89.

[ii] Mary C. Gentile, “Discussions About Ethics in the Accounting Classroom: Student Assumptions and Faculty Paradigms,” Giving Voice to Values curriculum,

[iii] One Off Decisions case, Giving Voice to Values curriculum,

[iv] “Reporting” module, Page 11, Giving Voice to Values curriculum,