Giving Voice to Values

I wrote the new book Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right (Yale University Press; August 2010) long before the BP disaster showed us just how terrifying the costs can be if we don't speak up about our values at work to prevent ethical transgressions.

The recent New York Times/CBS News poll about the BP oil spill shows that Americans are impatient with the response from Obama and BP, and mostly blame the catastrophe on a failure of the government to enforce regulation. We want someone to blame, of course, partly so there is someone from whom we can demand recompense. Anger seems the most accessible emotion to us. But just beneath the anger and beneath the fuel to the frustration is a feeling of powerlessness, a sense that things are out of control and that we don't know how to change that. We may want to say: if only someone had spoken up, if only someone had put a brake on this well before that fateful April day....

But now numerous reports have emerged of individuals in very different roles who did see this coming, and who did speak up. Despite the reported conflicts of interest at the MMS and the financial pressures at BP as the well ran behind schedule and over budget and the apparently conflicted lines of command on the actual rig, there still were engineers at BP who warned over a year ago that the well casings violated safety requirements; Halliburton representatives who raised alarms about the use of cement and the improper centering of well casings; MMS officials who required higher standards; and platform workers who waived red flags at various points including the day of the explosion. It's hard enough to speak up against the prevailing winds in an organization...but when we read the spate of recent stories about individuals who did, in fact, express their concerns at cut corners and violated safety requirements, to no avail, we begin to wonder is it even worth taking the risk?

Ironically, rather than railing against those who did not take effective precautionary action in the Gulf, we need to examine the attempts -flawed though they were - of those who did in fact voice their concerns. Organizations can do better at encouraging the voices of their employees, and more importantly, insisting that they be heard.

Research tells us a sense of futility is a major deterrent to voicing unpopular positions in the workplace. We don't believe anything will happen so we don't bother, but this recognition holds a seed for action. We need to celebrate the stories of times when people did, in fact, successfully change things through speaking up. And we need to do that close to home. Organizational leaders who want their employees to stop a crisis before it happens need to tell the stories of employees who took that kind of action right there, in the office down the hall.

And we need to think about how we frame and express what's at stake. We know that people tend to discount future costs and consequences over near term implications. So if we want to be heard about an impending risk, we need to make the costs feel real - quantify them, put them in a vivid story, point to a similar event. The folks at BP could certainly have pointed to the previous oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

These are all easy-to-learn skills that organizations can foster and that individuals can practice. Giving Voice To Values offers seven pillars for effective values-driven voice and action, as well as examples, scripting tools and exercises, and a hearty dose of inspiration to enable the skill-building and practice that is needed to avoid future disasters such as the one currently unfolding in the Gulf.

There is an intricate dance that goes on between individual action and organizational context. We cannot place our blame or put our faith entirely in one or the other; we must build the individual competence to voice our values effectively and the organizational culture to foster - or at least to hear - that voice when it is raised. If organizations provide the opportunity, in fact the necessity to pre-script and voice dissent when needed, individuals will develop the skills and the confidence to do so, and future disasters will be far less likely."