In Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (Yale University Press, 2010), management expert Mary C. Gentile, PhD, asserts that being aware of ethical issues and analyzing one’s options may be insufficient in today’s complex work environment.

Most of us fail to take appropriate values-based actions when we see questionable practices. I think it’s because most of us don’t know how to speak up about values at work, without sounding “goody-two-shoes.” Author Gentile suggests three steps:

  1. Developing scripts for responding to the “reasons and rationalizations” others give for questionable practices
  2. Developing alternative action plans to questionable strategies
  3. Practicing how to deliver said scripts and action plans without invoking others’ defensiveness

We must confidently flex our moral muscles and habitually speak up to be true to our values. But when a boss wants to alter a financial report, a sales team misrepresents a product or you witness workplace discrimination, you’ll be faced with several key challenges:

  • What should you say?
  • To whom should you say it?
  • When you craft a viable alternative, how can you summon the courage to act on your convictions?

Developing Effective Scripts

Answer the following questions when faced with a values conflict:

  • Which action/decision do I believe is right?
  • Will I encounter arguments against this course of action? (List them, and cite the reasons and rationalizations you’ll need to address.)
  • What’s at stake for the key parties (including those who disagree with me)? What’s at stake for me?
  • What are the most powerful and persuasive responses to others’ reasons and rationalizations? To whom, when and in what context should I make these arguments?

These questions are not about ethical analysis. They’re designed to help you understand the reasons and motivations — rational, emotional, organizational, personal, ethical, unethical —that guide one’s behavior and choices.

Do you see the difference? It’s one thing to analyze possible ethical questions – it’s another thing to know when to speak up, how to speak up and how to raise objections effectively. In the work I do coaching people, I find that most people know the difference between right and wrong, and are pretty good at analyzing degrees of right vs. right.

Everyone I speak with, however, wishes they knew how to handle values conflicts better, in a way that won’t cause defensiveness. These suggestions provide real action steps toward better discussions that might prevent disasters down the road.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you.