It has been very evident that ethical misconduct carries a huge price tag (consider HP, BP, Toyota, Goldman Sachs, Johnson and Johnson, and on and on). In fact, it doesn’t even have to be proven before reputation and share price fall.
So the question is what more can be done to decrease the likelihood of ethical misconduct, or said more affirmatively, what more can leaders do to foster the development of a culture that promotes ethical behavior?
I’ve several suggestions, but in this column, my focus is the benefit to a company when employees are comfortable and effective in addressing values conflicts that go against what they know to be right and put the company at risk.
According to Babson College’s Mary C. Gentile, values conflicts in the workplace are inevitable, a natural, integral part of doing business that leaders and employees need to be prepared to address. Gentile’s just-published book Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right provides a framework to empower readers to know how to act on their values in spite of countervailing pressures.
Her book has a logical business school audience because it dovetails with a curriculum Gentile has developed called appropriately Giving Voice to Values (GVV) that more than 100 business schools are using. The GVV program is part of an effort underway in management education to be more relevant in training future leaders.
However, the book is also a primer for CEOs and others on how to encourage a culture where questions, discussion and calm resolution of values conflicts can occur that can prevent or mitigate potential crises.
One of the ways to avoid being caught off guard by values conflicts, Gentile says, is to anticipate the kind of issues where they could occur in your area of responsibility. Examples could include disparaging race-related comments about a colleague, being asked to make sales results seem more positive than they are, or whatever.
Gentile outlines a process whereby individuals can take the time to come up with, and practice, an effective, thought-through, non-judgmental response. The process is about what would you do and say if you were going to act on your values? The preparation part involves seeing the other’s rationale and getting the data and information to back up your position. The practice part involves thinking through the actual words you would use, anticipating what the other person might say back, and then what you would then say etc.
The key is to avoid shutting down on one hand because you don’t know what to say, or on the other hand, giving an immediate, emotional, judgmental response where what you are trying to say is discounted. Ultimately, this is about operating in organizations with heightened Emotional Intelligence (EQ), being clear about one’s own values and working to have successful relationships with others.
Gentile, who has taught at the Harvard Business School and is now a Senior Research Scholar at Babson, understands the human impulse to avoid conflict. “Research tells us that when leaders talk openly about how they have applied or are learning to apply their values,” Gentile writes, “and when they talk about and listen to other viewpoints, they become more approachable and their direct reports feel more able to use their voices in similar ways.”
Unlike negotiation or global business strategy (areas in which executives can seek with impunity advanced skill development) seeking additional skill development in ethics issues have had a stigma attached to it—an admission of not being ethical enough. Gentile’s book should put an end to that nonsense; it reinforces the strategic benefits of developing skills in expressing values in the workplace, a pretty fundamental risk management approach.
Gael O’Brien August 15, 2010