How to Bring Your Values to Your Business

Posted by Mary Gentile

Twenty-plus years of work around values-driven leadership development led me to conclude that too often we are asking the wrong questions in our business-ethics programs, our sustainable-business programs, and our executive-leadership training. We spend most of our time asking "What is the right thing to do?" and figuring out whether or not it can be done, and not enough of our time asking "How can I get the right thing done?"

There are lots of reasons for this focus, and some of them make a lot of sense. It's true that there are often times when the "right" course of action is not entirely clear. But there are also many times when we do know what is right, and when we just don't believe it's possible to get it done. Shouldn't we be spending at least some of our time trying to answer this question of "action," as opposed to focusing exclusively on the question of "analysis"?

This recognition was the impetus for the development of a pioneering approach to values-driven leadership development, "Giving Voice To Values." GVV was launched with the Aspen Institute as the incubator and founding partner along with Yale. It is now funded and housed by Babson College. Featured in Harvard Business Review, Financial Times, strategy+business, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and many others, GVV has been piloted in well over 100 schools and organizations on six continents.

My conversations with business practitioners at all levels, uncovered a set of principles that can help us to ask and answer the question "How can I voice my values effectively?" In order to do that more positively we address myths that make it more difficult to do fulfill that goal. Here are a couple of those myths:

Myth One: You need a bullet-proof argument to raise your values in the workplace.
Often we are acutely aware of all the arguments we may encounter if we voice our values in the workplace: This is just standard practice and everyone in our industry expects it; the market has already discounted for this behavior; if we change this, our colleagues will pay the price; it's not material; and so on. And too often these arguments serve as preemptive rationalizations, leading us to stop looking for alternative ways of acting before we even start. And we believe that unless we had a magic response to all of these reasons and rationalizations, we can't even raise our concerns.

But the fact is that individuals who voice and enact their values do not necessarily need to have unassailable arguments, any more than the rationalizations they wish to counter are unassailable either. The fact is, there are indeed convincing responses to each of the common objections and they are learnable. We just need to make sure that our values-driven positions are articulately and clearly expressed, so that they can be part of the conversation.

Myth Two: You have to be "in charge" to voice your values.
When we spoke to lower-level employees, they would often say "I can't voice my values until I am the boss, and therefore have more power, influence, authority and credibility." But when we spoke to more senior employees, they often said "This would be easier if I were more junior in the organization. I would not have so many folks depending on me and my risks would be lower." But despite the fact that there are excuses for NOT speaking at any level, there are also folks who do speak and act, at every level of the organization. The trick is  to recognize that the levers available to us and the most effective strategies are different. Someone lower in the organization can position him or herself as a "learner," asking the crucial questions that help to raise risks. And someone higher in the organization can model a willingness to change his or her mind, to learn in public, and to even pay a short term price for longer term commitments.

There are other "myths" of course, like "I cannot voice my values if I'm a risk-averse person" or "I don't have a real choice to voice my values." And there are many ways to frame values conflicts that will make it more feasible for us to act positively. I have been collecting stories of individuals who voiced their values effectively in their jobs, and of tactics that helped them be successful. And I invite you to share your own stories, because the greatest myth is the one that says "Most people don't want to do this." In my work, I find many, many individuals who do, in fact, want to voice and enact their values and who want to become more effective at doing so. I invite you to join this conversation.

Mary C. Gentile PhD is the author of Giving Voice To Values: How To Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right (Yale University Press 2010), and is director of Giving Voice To Values, Babson College.