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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Giving Voice to Values

Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind when You Know What's Right

By Mary C. Gentile

Publisher: Yale University Press ISBN-13: 978-0300161182

This review first appeared on on 23rd September 2010


How can you effectively stand up for your values when pressured by your boss, colleagues, customers or shareholders to do the opposite?

Educator Mary Gentile empowers business leaders with the skills to voice and act on their values and align their professional path with their principles. Her book, Giving Voice to Values, is inspired by a curriculum Gentile launched at The Aspen Institute with Yale School of Management, now housed at Babson College, with pilot programs in over 100 schools and organizations on five continents.

Challenging the assumptions about business ethics at companies and business schools, she argues that often the issue isn't distinguishing what is right or wrong, but knowing how to act on your values despite opposing pressure. Drawing on actual business experiences as well as social science research, Gentile offers advice, practical exercises and scripts for handling a wide range of ethical dilemmas. Published by Yale University Press, Giving Voice to Values is an engaging, innovative and useful guide that is essential reading for anyone in business.


There is something, I think, that most people overlook in training on ethics and the assimilation of values in business, and that is how you actually put the theoretical knowledge in to practice. It's a little like knowing the calorie count of all the food on your daily menu, but having difficulty actually getting started with, and maintaining, that low-calorie diet. Giving Voice to Values, then, is a habit, perfected by practice, not simply a state of mind. This is the focus and unique value that this book, by Mary C. Gentile, a ten year veteran of Harvard Business School and a pioneer in the fields of business ethics and diversity management, brings to the table.

"Whistle-blowing," which is what all corporate Codes of Ethics require from employees, is a term which has a certain negative connotation. It tends to make us think of telling tales, going behind people's backs, in an almost cowardly and sneaky way. Yet ethical behavior, I believe, never goes unnoticed. There is always someone in any business organisation that knows what's going in, even if they have not been directly complicit in unethical behavior. The success of corporate ethics rests with the individual employee who is prepared to speak up for the values of the business, which hopefully coincide with her or his own personal values, even when this means confronting or whistle-blowing on the behavior of colleagues. Most of us that work in the field of ethics know that getting employees to speak up when they suspect colleagues of unethical behavior is the hardest aspect of any program, even harder than standing your ground when asked to go against your values. The organizational context that enables or disables the voicing of values is not always apparent and can influence individuals in many ways. This book is a welcome and refreshing addition to the many books out there that have been written on the subject of ethics in business because it focuses on how to voice values, and not what values to voice. It's not about persuading us that certain values are more appropriate than others, it's about helping us ensure we are capable of acting on our chosen values. In any organisation, writing the Code of Ethics is the easy bit, publishing it to all employees is also not complex, even conducting training or producing on-line primers on ethics is not so challenging. Truly embedding a culture of ethics which compels every individual to take personal responsibility and act ethically in every situation is what makes it all work. This book offers practical advice on how to "build the muscles" to speak and act, plan "voicing values," "craft scripts" and generally be prepared for a range of situations in which bold action is required. As the author says, "It is not about deciding what the right thing to do is, but rather about how to get it done."

Mary C. Gentile starts out with examples from a study conducted at Columbia Business School in which incoming MBA students were asked to write about a time when they had experienced a conflict between their values and what they were asked to do in the workplace. Whilst the stories were often similar (adjust billable hours, inflate or deflate numbers, misstate time needed to provide services etc), the responses were often different, highlighting discomfort with such conflicts and the need to be creative in finding the right response. This made me think of a popular reality TV program I enjoy watching, called "What Would You Do?" in which the reactions of unsuspecting members of the public are filmed, as they are unwittingly exposed to scenes involving a values conflict, which are fictitious and staged by actors. These may be something to do with discrimination, dishonesty, violence or abuse. Many walk on by without reacting. Some get stuck in and fight the good fight. Even those who do not react are interviewed and almost always, they knew something was wrong, wanted to get involved but were stopped by fear or other inhibitions.

Considering these scenarios ahead of time, and planning your response ahead of time to the question "What would you do?" can make the difference between speaking up and walking away. The author makes a very strong case for this in Giving Voice to Values.

Mary C. Gentile examines the underlying "attitudes, beliefs and capacities that enable our efforts to voice and act on our values," the types of values that are widely shared (and we generally know what these are), the ability we have to make a choice to confront value conflicts, and ultimately, the normalization of such value conflicts, so that we see them as part of our everyday job, and are prepared as far as possible for the types of corners they force us into. Thereafter, in a chapter entitled "Finding my Voice," the author describes several "enablers" or points to consider in how to formulate your own personal approach to dealing with values conflicts, in a way you are comfortable with. A series of appendices provide primers and exercises to help you develop those value conflict management muscles.

Flavored with a range of anecdotes from the author's vast experience, this book was inspired by a program the author developed at the Aspen Institute together with Yale School of Management. It is easy but certainly not light reading, and it targeted at us, as individuals, rather than at those who develop organizational processes. The central argument is persuasive, and the logic is sound. I therefore recommend this book to everyone who works in a business or leads people in business, or more simply put, I recommend it to everyone. Period.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Contact me via  on Twitter or via my website

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