Giving Voice To Values Book Review

Giving Voice To Values, as author Mary C. Gentile explains in the preface and introductory chapters, started out as a thought experiment, the mission of which was to answer the questions, What if we wanted to voice and act on our values? What would we say and do? And, if we choose to share our values, how do we do so in ways that empower all of us to do so more fully, more often and more effectively? In seeking answers to these questions, the author has examined and dissected real-life successful examples of people voicing their values. The emphasis of her examination is not focused on whether to speak up about important matters but more so on the how of speaking up. She has combined these findings with factual and research information from business, law and psychology publications, resulting in a skill and practice-based approach; offering a framework of insights and tools that can equip individual readers with the skills, scripts and the confidence to act on their most deeply held values in the workplace.

Gentile dispels the myth that people cannot act in support of ethical values due to their position or ranking in an organization. She points out that one need not have great power or influence or put themselves at great personal risk to stand up for their values. The confidence to act upon our convictions comes from the building up of ethical muscle. Knowing what to say, to whom and how to say it is something that can be thought through thoroughly, learned, and practiced. She writes, “As we begin to reflect on our own voice, it is encouraging and helpful to recognize that it can be and must be developed. We are not born with a certain degree of freedom or confidence or skill that remains constant throughout our lives. Rather we can enhance or diminish our voice by the ways we choose to use or not to use it.”

Once we get up the gumption to take a stand on our values, we often, unfortunately, think less about how we convey our concerns. “It is surprising,” Gentile says, “how often, in our emotionality about a values conflict, we may tend to just blunder in and blurt out an argument without adequate preparation.” Sometimes, Gentile suggests, we do this because we are uncomfortable with the situation and want to get discussion over with quickly. “Unfortunately, this response is often less effective—and ultimately maybe even more uncomfortable—than a more carefully prepared response,” she notes. 

It stands to reason, then, that success in having our concerns genuinely heard and by the right people, doesn’t come by chance. It takes a great deal of thought and advance preparation. It is important to think about the selection and sequence of presenting our concerns to our audiences. “Research and experience tell us that we will frequently encounter values conflicts in our careers, when our values and purpose—the way we want to live and work—seem unaligned with the expectations of bosses, clients, peers, or the wider organization” so why not expect the unexpected and prepare ourselves for this inevitability?

In the book, stories of those who enacted their values are full of careful planning, skillful scripting, and practiced choreography. With this in mind, Gentile asks readers to complete some self-assessment questions in order to prepare a “values script”; a carefully prepared statement tailored to personalized definitions of purpose, risk-taking abilities, individual preferences, and strengths in personal communication. 

Having this statement prepared well in advance of ethical challenges has three-fold purpose: it can help us to be ready and not caught off guard when ethical challenges occur; preparation of such a script can encourage us to take action and speak our values when appropriate, and having the script can hold us accountable and can help us avoid self-justifying inaction, after the opportunity to voice our values has passed. “If we approach our careers with the expectation that we will face values conflicts and have anticipated some of the most common types in our intended industry and functional area,” Gentile explains, “not only can we minimize the disabling effect of surprise, but also we will likely find ourselves framing attempts to speak about these issues in a less alarmist or emotional manner and more as a matter of course.” Having this prepared statement available allows us to maintain professional composure and communicate clearly and effectively in critical moments.

Through reflection on both successful and less successful experiences voicing and acting on our values in the workplace, the book and exercises within are designed to help readers identify and develop the competencies necessary to work on alignment with our values by uncovering the conditions and problem definitions that have empowered us in the past to effectively voice our values, as well as those which tend to inhibit this action. The book is not, however, solely personal soul-searching and reflection. Gentile also shares research-based common categories of rationalization, reasons used to justify behaviors and examines decision-making biases, in efforts to help the reader understand what may prevent them and others from sharing their perspective during values-based conflicts.

Giving Voice to Values operates on the premise that most of us want to bring our ‘whole-selves’ to the workplace, and that we wish to act in accordance with our deepest values and commitments. What I like the most about Gentile’s approach is that unlike the typical appeals to values-based action, she is not asking the reader to learn new communication or negotiation techniques or skills. Instead, she is interested in framing conflicts “so that they require the kinds of behaviors and actions with which we are already comfortable and skilled”. The commitment she asks the reader for is to be more of who we already are, rather than someone different. I believe that the approach shared in this book is truly actionable and realistically applicable. Giving Voice to Values’ purpose is to “prepare folks to be able to do what they already want to do, to stand up for values important to them” and it does so working with and not against the confidences and strengths of the individual. This becoming more of who we already are philosophy is the reason I would recommend Giving Voice to Values to anyone who is interested in taking on ethical challenges by acting on their values.

By Kerry Tay McLean, Ombuds Program Administrator
University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office

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