• Behaviour

Giving Voice to Values

A renowned resource for enabling values-driven leadership hosted at Darden


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What is the right thing to do?

How is the right thing to be done?

All enlightened business leaders surely ask and maybe answer the first question. Evidence from too many corporate scandals suggest that they may not have answered the second or have just found the step from defining to implementing beset by too many barriers.

Help in overcoming these barriers is offered by Professor Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values (GVV) initiative, now hosted at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Rather than focusing on ethical analysis, the GVV curriculum (much of which is available free) focuses on ethical implementation and asks the questions: “What if I were going to act on my values? What would I say and do? How could I be most effective?"

As a rule, people want to be authentic, want to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work, and want to fulfil their own sense of organizational and personal purpose in an ethical way. Yet they can encounter barriers when the expectations of bosses, peers, and clients or the prevailing culture of the organization conflicts with their values.

When ethical problems are pointed out, colleagues will often present objections in the form of reasons and rationalizations or sometimes the barriers may just be in the form of unspoken assumptions of the organization.

In a recent article Professor Gentile points to some of the most common rationalisations, which include:

  • Expected or Standard Practice: “Everyone does this, so it’s really standard practice. It’s even expected.”
  • Materiality: “The impact of this action is not material. It doesn’t really hurt anyone.”
  • Locus of Responsibility: “This is not my responsibility; I’m just following orders here.”
  • Locus of Loyalty: “I know this isn’t quite fair to the customer but I don’t want to hurt my reports/team/boss/company.”

Responding to objections can be extremely difficult when the executive feels he or she is in the minority. The advice provided by the GVV curriculum, based on research, practice and experience, can help new and experienced executives alike speak and act on their values when ethical conflicts arise.

For example, this is how Gentile answers the arguments listed above in her article:

The appeal to expected or standard practice is often an exaggeration. If everyone actually were doing “it” (whatever “it” is), what would be the consequences for business practice and customer trust? If the practice is really accepted, why are there so often laws, rules and/or policies against it? Would you be comfortable if everyone knew you were doing this? Who wouldn’t you want to know? And so on.

With regard to the materiality argument, it becomes important to recognize that determinations of materiality are often ambiguous. Rather than being objective, they can depend on the method of measurement being employed. Additionally, some practices are considered fraudulent, regardless of their relative size; that is, some things can’t be just a little wrong.

The question of responsibility is another well-considered topic in ethics literature, and numerous guidelines have been developed for assessing whether or not we are required to act. The point here, though, is that this argument is often used when we know we are uncomfortable with a decision or action but are afraid of the consequences of voicing and acting upon that judgment. Therefore, the individual using this argument has already acknowledged that they don’t like the situation, and this provides an opening for further discussion.

Finally, as noted earlier, the question and definition of loyalty can be framed in multiple ways. For example, are we “loyal” when we protect the financial bonus of our team this quarter or when we protect their long-term reputation and productivity?

Read Professor Gentile’s article: Giving Voice to Values: How to Conquer Rationalizations Rationally

UV Darden’s ‘Purpose Driven Leadership: Engaging Stakeholders’ program relates to the Giving Voice to Values theme and to the belief that sustainable success can be achieved by creating value for your organization's stakeholders (employees, suppliers, customers, communities, etc.) through commitment to a shared vision.

For over half a century, Darden Executive Education has served as a critical resource for businesses around the world, conveying the relevant strategies and specific business skills needed to formulate decisions, set action plans and apply sustainable options.

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