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Vocal Values-Driven Leadership

By Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D.
October 1, 2021

Leaders who want to instill an ethical culture can encourage their organization’s personnel to give voice to their values.

 

Giving voice to values (GVV) is an approach to values-driven leadership development in business education and the workplace that draws on scholarship and practical experience navigating ethical issues. GVV isn’t about persuading people to be more ethical. Rather, GVV starts from the premise that most of us already want to act based on our values effectively and successfully. The GVV pedagogy and curriculum focus on ethical implementation: what to say and do to act on our values most effectively.

 

GVV encourages practitioners to find alignment between their own personal values and their employer’s corporate values. Although a particular entity or individual may act unethically at times, the core values that most organizations espouse (e.g., integrity, respect, honesty, etc.) tend to overlap with high-level universal human values or “hyper norms,” forming a common ground to which we can appeal ethically. If we want to communicate effectively despite values conflicts, then we need to identify the values that we’re likely to share with others and frame our approach in terms that appeal to that commonality.

 

A GVV case study describes an actual situation where a newly promoted corporate controller is pressured to adjust the publicly traded company’s quarterly report in a fashion that conflicts with accounting standards. He begins to wonder if this sort of request is standard operating procedure in the organization and whether he should wait until he’s more established in his new role before raising the ethical issue. He tests the waters with a senior colleague, who warns him against mentioning the topic with a veiled threat that if he isn’t able to handle such situations, then perhaps he shouldn’t be in his new role.

 

After considering his options, the controller determines that waiting will only make his position more difficult and increase the risks for him and his organization. He decides to approach the CEO, explaining his decision to kick off an organization-wide initiative to emphasize integrity and accurate reporting. The controller asks for the CEO’s support and, by so doing, creates a context wherein tinkering with the reporting will be more visible and therefore no longer feasible. The controller uses all his influence as well as problem-reframing and persuasion skills to successfully address the situation in accordance with his values.

 

When leaders effectively voice and enact their values, they set a tone for their colleagues. One of the deterrents to acting on our values is the misconception that we’re alone. Seeing others behave ethically provides encouragement, and the impact is amplified when the role model is in a leadership position. This also means that leaders are more likely to receive honest feedback and complete information from their team members that they need to make quality decisions.

 

STRATEGIES AND TOOLS

 

While most agree that expressing their ethical beliefs in the workplace is important, it can be difficult to know where to start. Examples of GVV strategies and tools that professionals can use to effectively voice and enact their values include:

 

Speak up now or later. Sometimes we’re able to act or speak effectively immediately in the moment when we recognize a values challenge, but even if we miss that opportunity, we can often return to the issue later when we’ve had the chance to think through our response.

 

Buy time. If we can’t effectively address an issue as it arises, then sometimes we can request more data, input, or consideration to buy time to find an effective way to address the challenge.

 

Address the issue. Sometimes we can point out the values conflict directly, but other times we can find ways to address the issue without embarrassing or shaming the other person. Simply offering an alternative approach allows the individual to shift gears while saving face.

 

Support others. If we witness someone raising a values issue, then it can be very powerful if we offer that person support publicly and/or privately.

 

Identify and enlist allies. If we see a challenge, then there are likely others who feel the same way. We may not know who they are, however, if we don’t try to raise the issue. We can often make our points more effectively if we enlist well-chosen allies who bring experience, knowledge, and influence.

 

Think short- and long-term. When raising values concerns, try to raise both short- and long-term benefits of doing the right thing, as well as both short- and long-term costs of doing the wrong thing.

 

Reframe the concern in positive terms. If we’re trying to encourage others to work with us on a values concern, then it can be helpful to frame the request as “taking a leadership role” or “building a stronger, more successful organization.” Avoid framing concerns as a complaint or an accusation.

 

Identify and reduce risks. If we identify what’s motivating all parties and what’s at risk or at stake for everyone involved, then we can sometimes find ways to raise our concerns that will help people feel less vulnerable and solve their problems in a way that’s consistent with the organization’s values and our own.

 

Appeal to purpose. Support our ethical positions by focusing on the purpose and goals that we share with the individuals whom we’re trying to influence, as opposed to focusing only on our differences or playing the blame game.

 

Counter lowest-common-denominator assumptions. Often, assuming the worst of those around us makes us think that it may be impossible to act on our values effectively, but we can create a virtuous circle by appealing to the good in our colleagues.

 

Goals worth achieving aren’t necessarily easy, and we may not always succeed, but we can get better at voicing and acting on our values. GVV is about developing the skills, scripts, practices, and action plans that are likely to succeed, then rehearsing and peer-coaching them so that we develop a “moral muscle memory,” instilling the habit of behaving ethically.

 

Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D., is the creator/director of Giving Voice to Values and the Richard M. Waitzer Bicentennial Professor of Ethics at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. You can reach her at gentilem@darden.virginia.edu.
Jolene Lampton, Ph.D., CPA, CGMA, CFE, a member of IMA’s Committee on Ethics, contributed to this column.
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