Making ethical decisions at work is easy. Speaking up is harder

Speaking up for your beliefs is a skill that can be learned. Employers should encourage it

 
Man in crowd with his hand raised.

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Speaking up is hard. Going against the grain when the team’s mind is made up is harder. And “speaking truth to power”—especially when “power” means someone who can end your career—is harder still. But speaking up is important—sometimes, absolutely morally required. Other times, it might be strictly optional but is a way to demonstrate true leadership. It’s an important skill, and a commitment worth fostering.

On November 24, the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program (of which I’m director) had the pleasure of hosting Mary Gentile, a professor at Babson College and author of the book, Giving Voice to Values. The key message of Gentile’s presentation, and of her book, is that the key ethical skill that business students and corporate employees need to foster is not skill at making ethical decisions, but skill at speaking up. Quite often we know the right thing to do, but have trouble doing it. When the boss wants us to fudge the numbers, or when the team decides to go with a plan that involves playing fast-and-loose with ethical obligations to a client, the problem generally isn’t with figuring out what’s right. The challenge lies in finding the right way, in terms of interpersonal and organizational dynamics, to make it happen.

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As we’ve seen from the Jian Ghomeshi affair, speaking up isn’t hard only within organizations. But certain facets of organizational life make speaking up especially challenging. Consider, for starters, the emphasis that every organization—every organization—puts on loyalty. That emphasis is a matter of necessity. You can’t have a well-functioning company without employees who feel some level of dedication to the corporate mission, and you can’t even have an effective team if all the members of that team don’t, to some extent, put the interests and goals of the team above their own. From an organizational point of view, a certain amount of group-think is a feature, not a bug. But loyalty can too easily slide into a herd mentality, when people’s brains shut off and they nod their heads out of habit, rather than true agreement. The result can be disastrous.

In her Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum, much of which is available for free online, and which has been adopted by literally hundreds of business schools and corporations across the globe, Gentile emphasizes practical exercises that build participants’ skill and ability to formulate an effective script for speaking up, and to deliver it. Importantly, GVV doesn’t start with a list of abstract virtues or principles. It merely starts from the idea that all of us want to do the right thing, and that each of us has, in the past, found ourselves in situations in which we have drawn upon our own values to do the right thing under tough circumstances. GVV encourages each of us to figure out what our own best self is, what our best stories about ourselves are, and to draw upon those stories in moments of need. It’s a very positive message, and an immensely practical one—one that serves to remind us that ethics isn’t about being a saint. It’s about doing our best to be our best selves, given the enormously complex and ethically challenging organizations that we all inhabit.

Chris MacDonald is founding director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review. Follow him at @ethicsblogger

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