Combating ethical cynicism and voicing values in the workplace
by Mary C. Gentile
Leadership |
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A leader cannot create a values-driven culture with rules and mission statements alone. Using techniques such as pre-scripting, rehearsal and peer coaching, leaders can learn to listen and employees can learn to speak. The result is a circle of practice that removes values from the realm of aspiration and positions them squarely within the realm of everyday business. Readers will learn how to create such a circle in this article.

Recent events have contributed to an ever-growing cynicism and even a sense of futility about the values and ethics of global business institutions. We have seen, for example, the creation and marketing of investment vehicles allegedly designed to fail, so that those in the know could short them; the knowing disregard of credit-worthiness requirements by banks and mortgage brokers; the practice of “cooking the books” over long time periods until seemingly solid and successful businesses collapse under the weight of their own false information, and the prioritizing the importance of time and financial pressures over safety requirements in the mining and extractive industries.

The costs of such transgressions have had a troubling multiplier effect, causing financial, human and environmental devastation. Beyond that, they contributed to a crisis of faith in the marketplace that paradoxically, makes it even more difficult to fix what ails us. The more business leaders and employees believe that the system is corrupt, the less likely they are to feel empowered or motivated to behave differently. Research and experience suggest that among the most prevalent reasons for the failure of individuals to address problems in the workplace are a fear of retaliation, a sense that they are alone with their concerns and the belief that their efforts will be ignored anyway.1

 

Whose job is it, anyway?

So what’s a business leader to do, particularly when it comes to values and ethics? How can he or she address and counter this sense of futility? This can be a daunting challenge particularly because the received wisdom is that everything “starts at the top.”

This was driven home to me recently when I was delivering a public lecture about how to voice one’s values in the workplace. I noticed a smartly dressed gentleman in the front row who was fidgeting in his seat and growing increasingly agitated. As I completed my remarks and invited comments, his hand shot up so fast I thought his chair might tip over. Wondering what was on his mind, I invited him to speak:

“I am the owner and CEO of my own very successful retail company and I care a great deal about values, but let me tell you that it is just not possible for employees to act ethically if the CEO does not create the culture and make it possible. This is not about individual action; it’s about leadership.”

And as he spoke, a number of heads in the audience were bobbing up and down in agreement.Of course in one sense there is no question that a primary responsibility of organizational leaders is to set the tone and communicate what is important in an organization, what is allowed and where the boundaries of action lie. But taken to its extreme, this perspective runs the risk of exaggerating the CEO’s power, on the one hand, and the helplessness of the employees, on the other, fueling that very sense of futility discussed above.

The B.P. oil spill in the Gulf in the summer of 2010 is a case in point. Every morning for months, stunned citizens opened the newspapers or turned on their computers, only to hear of more unheeded warning signals and more apparently known safety risks that had contributed to the environmental and financial devastation. One had to wonder why anyone didn’t speak up? But then as the story unfolded, there were indeed accounts of engineers at B.P. who had raised questions, and of managers at Transocean who had expressed concerns, and of federal regulators with the Minerals Management Service who had complained – all to no avail!

From one vantage point, this dismal story can be seen as proof that the CEO quoted above is right when he argues that individual employees have no power to make change, and that it’s up to organizational leaders to counter the cynicism that can silence an otherwise well-intended employee. But from another perspective, this story suggests a dual-sided leadership and management agenda. In reality, there is a complicated dance that takes place between organizational leaders and their employees. Employees need to learn to voice and enact their values more effectively and persuasively; it’s not enough to just speak up. Just as with any managerial decision, they need to learn to frame and explain their position in an actionable form. And leaders need to create a culture where those messages are welcomed, encouraged and in which they can be heard. This means, first of all, learning to hear dissenting voices.

Choreographing the dance

The recognition that management is not a solo performance and that values-driven leadership behaviors are not only possible but required from any and every seat in the house suggests the need for a much more pragmatic, action-oriented approach to business ethics than the one that is usually undertaken. The typical best practices involve setting and communicating a mission statement and corporate values; external and internal statements from the CEO and senior leaders of the organization; employee training on the relevant laws, regulations and corporate policies, often illustrated by case examples; and a set of consequences – positive incentives as well as the threat of punishment – established to support the rules. It is, indeed, a very top-down approach but it doesn’t necessarily address the underlying concern expressed by that CEO quoted above. In other words, setting and communicating rules and guidelines from the top is not necessarily the same as creating a culture that encourages, enables and welcomes the voicing of values.

In fact, the typical approaches to ethics and compliance, although necessary, are not sufficient to counter the sense of futility discussed above. This is because they are too often viewed as paying mere lip service as well as the fact that those employees who would want to take these values and policies seriously are too often ill prepared to do so effectively. A new, very practical, action-oriented approach is required to help them develop the necessary skills, the toolkit and the confidence required for “Giving Voice To Values” (GVV).

There are five distinctive features of this approach:

1) Asking a different question: Rather than using rules and policies to address the question, “What is the right thing to do?” in a particular situation, the GVV approach asks and answers the question, “When I know what the right thing to do is, how do I get it done?” That is, this approach to thinking and training about ethical conflicts in the workplace starts from the assumption that managers very often already know what is right. GVV then focuses on figuring out, pre-scripting and practicing what they need to say and do in order to be heard. This approach is not about preaching or arguing or even merely inspiring; it’s about building the “muscle memory” for voicing values by means of actual rehearsal, individually, in organizational training sessions, or by means of internal coaching.

For, example, one can imagine that some of the employees at BP or Transocean raised concerns about the materials and processes being used in a group meeting, but were quickly shut down or even ignored. Or maybe they approached their boss one-on-one, who expressed sympathy but explained that his or her hands were tied by financial and time constraints. Or maybe these employees were forceful, even angry, in expressing their concerns but once silenced, they went off to stew and build resentment, fueling the kind of counter-productive cynicism described earlier. And perhaps they each screwed up the courage to take individual stands, when it could have been easier, safer and more effective to coordinate their voices.

If however, they had planned their arguments in much the same way that a manager would plan and orchestrate the campaign for a new product launch or a new customer focus or even a new internal audit system, they may have been more successful. If they had “normalized” the challenge they were facing – after all, the tension between time and money on the one hand, and care and safety on the other, is nothing new – they may have been more able to speak calmly; to gather necessary supporting data and arguments; to find others who shared their view and build a more powerful and coordinated coalition; to strategize about who needed to be approached; in what sequence and with what arguments tailored to their interests and points of view. Instead of isolated individuals sporadically and randomly popping up with complaints only to be shut down, like a tragic game of “whack-a-mole,” they might have orchestrated a steady drumbeat of credible voices and positions.

Although the GVV approach is about empowering every employee to speak effectively, it also means that the CEO and other executives need to share –when they speak to employees — how they found ways to craft effective scripts and action plans in the service of their values. Rather than simply exhorting their ranks to “do the right thing,” they can model just exactly how that might happen. This is one of the most powerful mechanisms they can use to send the signal that they would, indeed, listen if employees came forward, thereby countering the sense of futility that too often silences them.

2) Spotlighting positive examples: Research and experience support the power of storytelling for building and sharing organizational culture.2 Too often, however, when organizations, and their leaders and employees turn to the topic of values, the emphasis is on the negative stories. There can be a sort of “scared straight” approach that is often more disempowering than anything else.

On the contrary, sharing the stories of times when individuals have, indeed, found ways to respond to the all-too-common values challenges in an organization can have a profound impact. This can be particularly so if the stories are not shared as examples of heroism, but rather as roadmaps and toolkits to be mined for effective strategies. The point is not to celebrate the individual hero, but rather to counter the fear that no one actually does this and to provide concrete examples of how it might be done well. The stories can be disguised but the more real and closer the situation feels to the kinds of challenges employees face themselves and the more details about just what was said and done are included, the greater the impact they can make.

3) Playing to individual strengths: Again, the “Giving Voice To Values” approach to a common management development tool – self-assessment – turns conventional strategies on their heads. Although the focus here is on ethics and values, the GVV emphasis is not on “values clarification” – assessing what one’s core values are – but rather on identifying and using one’s communication and style preferences to become more effective at voicing values. In other words, rather than preach to assertive risk-embracing managers that they should be more cautious and restrain themselves, this approach would say “Embrace that risk-taking personality and use it take risks in the service of your best values.” Or, on the other hand, rather than exhort the more conservative and reticent employees to be bolder, the GVV approach would say. “Find a way to frame your values conflict so that acting on your values appears safer than not doing so.”

This perhaps counter-intuitive approach grew out of interviews with managers who had, in fact, successfully voiced and acted on their ethical values in the workplace. It was found that the individual who saw him or herself as aggressive viewed enacting values as a more assertive position, while the individual who saw him or herself as fearful viewed voicing values as a less risky stance. They worked with their self-concept instead of against it. Instead of thinking they had to become a different sort of person altogether in order to behave ethically, they found that they could simply be more of who they believed they were already.

Some of the self-assessment questions to consider include:

  • How do I define my personal, organizational and professional sense of purpose? The broader and more explicit the definitions are, the more they can enable values-driven behaviors.
  • What is my personal risk profile?

Both risk-embracing and risk-averse individuals can find ways to voice their values. They simply need to re-frame the challenge to fit their predisposition.

  • What is my preferred communication style?

Values can be expressed in many ways: as arguments, well-timed questions, invitations, or expressions of concern. Too often, employees feel that they need to be whistle-blowers or give self-righteous little speeches. This is often not the most effective strategy. The more comfortable one is with the style, the more likely one is to use it.

4) Pre-Scripting: One of the most powerful and effective strategies that organizations and their leaders can use to empower voice and combat a sense of futility in the workplace around voicing values is to provide opportunities to literally pre-script their responses to values conflicts. That is, use informal conversations, team meetings as well as formal training sessions to provide the opportunity to identify the most frequently heard “reasons and rationalizations” for NOT acting on one’s values. Employees can then work together to craft persuasive responses to those arguments and practice delivering them.

Interestingly, when this is done, it quickly becomes evident that the rationalizations for not acting ethically are finite and fairly predictable. And perhaps most importantly, they are vulnerable to refutation.3

The most common categories of argument tend to be:

  • It’s standard operating procedure: that is, everyone does this and it’s expected.
  • It’s not material: that is, it’s only a little wrong.
  • It’s not my responsibility: that is, someone else has the power, the legitimacy or the requirement to address this.
  • Appeals to loyalty: I don’t want to hurt my colleague, my team, my friend, my boss, etc.

The pattern of these arguments has been familiar to most of us since childhood, and similarly, so have the responses. But they need to be framed in the language of the organization, the industry or the particular project. And they need to be normalized through rehearsal with one’s peers.

For example, if a certain behavior is really expected, why are there rules and regulations against it? And what were the negative consequences that made those rules necessary? And what are the costs of ignoring them? Regarding “materiality,” some behaviors involve binary choices; that is they are either off or on. Fraud is not triggered by degree, for example. If they appeal to “responsibility,” they are already admitting that they agree that there is a problem. The question then becomes more about tactics, persuasion and strategies. And “loyalty” is a reciprocal concept, so it is always possible to re-frame the concern to ask: Where is my colleague’s loyalty to me if they are asking me to put my own career, reputation and values at risk out of loyalty to them? And so on.

The responses, of course, need to be refined and often the strategies used are less about arguing than they are about finding win/win’s or framing new questions or quantifying the costs of not enacting one’s values just as clearly as one has quantified the feared consequences of doing so. Anticipating these arguments in advance, thinking through their vulnerabilities beforehand, and defusing their impact are powerful tools.

5) Peer coaching: Building formal and informal opportunities to practice the scripting described above, and to work with one’s colleagues to refine and familiarize oneself with them is perhaps the most effective remedy for organizational cynicism and the feeling of futility described at the top of this essay. Practicing the “scripts” and working with colleagues to make them more persuasive creates the sense of a community of values-driven actors who are countering the feeling of isolation and making it more likely that employees can and will act.

 

Countering the cynicism

Each of these five behaviors is both a key component of a more action-oriented training program around values-driven leadership and behavior in an organization, as well as a mechanism that any individual – from the top of an organization to the bottom and back again – can practice and apply on their own. Together, these behaviors are a powerful antidote to a sense of futility and cynicism that is fueled by, and then ironically, reinforces, the tragic erosion of trust in businesses today.

A business leader cannot create a values-driven culture with rules and mission statements alone. And employees will not be effective if they merely speak out for their values, without thinking about how to help those expressions be heard and without offering to help find ways to address them. Organizational leaders and their reports must act their way into an organization that can appreciate and positively respond to expressions of values and attempts to enact them. Through pre-scripting, rehearsal and peer coaching, leaders learn to listen and employees learn to speak, creating a circle of practice that removes values from the realm of aspiration and positions them squarely within the realm of everyday business practice.


  1. “Debunking Four Myths About Employee Silence,” James R.Detert, Ethan R. Burris and David A. Harrison, Harvard Business Review, June 2010.
  2. This phenomenon has been studied and explored by numerous scholars and practitioners, from Gareth Morgan to Joanne Martin to David Cooperrider to Stephen Denning.
  3. See more on responding to “reasons and rationalizations” in Gentile, Mary C., “Keeping Your Colleagues Honest,” Harvard Business Review, March 2010.
The Author:

Mary C. Gentile

Mary C. Gentile is Director, Giving Voice To Values, Babson College. (http://www.givingvoicetovalues.org/; http://www.marygentile.com/)



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