By Mary Gentile

The theme of World Values Day this year is “Values In Action” and this is an especially appropriate focus at a time when individuals and organizations around the world are facing unprecedented challenges from a global pandemic; from escalating impacts of climate change; from the continually growing wealth gap; from new opportunities as well as threats from ever more sophisticated technologies; from political upheaval; from racial, ethnic and social injustices that have reached a boiling point; and on and on. Simply understanding that these challenges exist is insufficient; we need to find ways to act to address them — ethically, responsibly and effectively.

And values-driven action requires not only a commitment, but also, the skills, the literal “scripts”, the rehearsal, the peer coaching, the PRACTICE or rehearsal that can build the comfort, the confidence and the “habit” of acting on our values.

Research suggests that when we face complex and threatening values conflicts, we tend to react with an immediate and emotion-based response. This response is automatic, even unconscious, and then we tend to rationalize – post-hoc – why our actions were the “right thing” to do, or even the “only” thing we could do. This automatic response springs from the natural desire to avoid the feeling of cognitive dissonance and discomfort that would arise when we knowingly choose to do the “wrong thing.”

Thus, in order to truly empower and prepare ourselves to act on our values, we need to actually “re-wire” that automatic and unconscious response. We do this through rehearsing scripts and action plans, in advance and out loud, optimally with peers, so as to build a “moral muscle memory” for values-driven action.

One effective strategy for doing this is to reflect upon and gather and then share examples of times when we ourselves and/or our peers have actually and successfully acted on our values….and then to reflect upon the tactics, the arguments, and the strategies that enabled us to do so. We want to make these sorts of tactics and scripts more comfortable by making them more familiar — that is, a habit.

This sort of approach is actually a kind of pedagogical sleight of hand: rather than focusing on the question “what is the right thing to do?”, we focus on the question “How can we get the right thing done?” And re-framing our focus in this way can be empowering and inspiring. Rather than thinking of values as “constraints on actions” or a list of “thou-shalt-not’s”, acting on our values becomes creative and even entrepreneurial.

Think about an action you would like to catalyze and someone whom you would like to influence, for example. Perhaps you want your firm to provide more protective measures and equipment for employees to protect against Covid-19. Or perhaps you want your organization to take a deeper look at its own hiring and promotion practices with regard to diversity and inclusion. How could you start a conversation – perhaps initially with a few work friends – but eventually with a larger and larger circle of colleagues. Could you anticipate and identify the sorts of resistance you might face – and then think about ways to make your proposals safer, more appealing, more persuasive to those who might find them threatening or who might be defensive. And could you rehearse these approaches in your circle of conversational partners before beginning to widen that sphere?

Could you gather data, positive examples and effective responses to the “reasons and rationalizes” you are likely to face?

For example, some of the most frequently heard rationalizes you may face include:

— “It’s standard operating procedure; it’s just the way we do things here.”

–“It’s not ‘material;’ it’s not a big enough deal to worry about.”

–“It’s not my responsibility; it’s above my pay grade.”

–“It may be wrong but I feel loyalty to _____(my boss or my colleague or my customer who is asking me to do this).”

These are all very common and even powerful rationalizations, but they are not bullet proof. But it is challenging to respond to them effectively in the moment; we often feel stymied. But by learning from the successful examples of others (and even ourselves), we can pre-script and become more fluent with ways to handle these arguments. For example, if someone says “this is just not a big enough deal to worry about,” we can respond that this is precisely why now is the time to respond – when the issue is small and less dangerous and easier to reverse.

None of these scripts or tactics are rocket science but we need to be comfortable delivering them and helpfully, to have examples to illustrate them, in order to use them effectively and naturally and without the emotion that can cause us to be accusatory. If we normalize these responses through anticipation and rehearsal, we can respond with less emotion and therefore by less likely to trigger anger or defensiveness or resistance in the folks we hope to influence.

Giving voice to values is not about preaching or accusing; it is about building organizational conversations. It is about re-framing debates. It is about helping us all recognize and truly believe and feel that we have more choices than we may have thought when it comes to “Values In Action.” And very simply, it is about doing this through practice. As we reflect on World Values Day this year, can we all identify and begin to rehearse for voicing our values around an idea that is important to us? Let’s accept that invitation!

About the Author

Mary Gentile

Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D. is Director of Giving Voice to Values, launched with The Aspen Institute and Yale School of Management and hosted at Babson College for 6 years, now based at University of Virgina-Darden School of Business. This pioneering curriculum for values-driven leadership has had over 1,200 pilots globally and has been featured in Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, Stanford Social Innovation Review, McKinsey Quarterly, etc. Gentile, faculty at UVA Darden and educational consultant, was previously at Harvard Business School. She holds a B.A. from The College of William and Mary and Ph.D. from State University of New York-Buffalo.


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