How to Speak Truth to Power Work
In the epoch of a global crisis, when uncertainty reigns supreme, workers fear job cuts, and reopening offices are driven by ambitious business mandates that may lead to increased ethical misconduct and harassment, The Conscience Code by G. Richard Shell, the Chair of Wharton’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department, offers actionable strategies to help you fight for your values in the twenty-first century workplace. This article offers a quick summary and review of this latest book from one of our senior Wharton professors.
Prior to the pandemic, Shell says, surveys showed that roughly 40% of workers reported observing misconduct at work in a given year and 25% were pressured to become complicit in misdeeds. Will the return to offices bring a new spike in these statistics? Shell thinks there is a “good chance it will.”
Shell’s prior books on negotiation (Bargaining for Advantage) and success (Springboard), are well-known to Wharton audiences. He describes his latest work this way: “This book brings everything I know about effective negotiation and persuasion to the table to help people deal with the most important conflicts of all—the ones over core values such as honesty, personal dignity, fairness, and justice when the pressure is on to look the other way. These conflicts do not come every day, but when they do you had better be prepared. They are the true tests of your character.”
Below you will find a quick overview the book, which takes readers on a research-based, four-stage journey that illuminates the way these conflicts unfold. What the article cannot do is describe the stories and tactical nuances that Shell uses to outline the path. As Shell commented in an interview with The Wharton Journal, “The book’s goal is to inspire readers to lead with their values, becoming forces for good who help create nurturing and productive work environments in which office bullying, ethical shortcuts, and harassment are replaced with principles of transparency and fairness.”
The journey starts with recognizing that you face something more than just a disagreement over office behavior, strategy, or execution. You must be willing to see that important values and principles are at risk in a dispute, even if it is inconvenient or anxiety-provoking to do so. The journey continues as you “own” the situation and take responsibility for it, then decide what to do, and finally take action. Shell explained that a simple way to remember this journey is with a metaphor from air combat tactics: the OODA Loop. Like fighter pilots, Shell says, advocates for workplace values must Observe, Own, Decide, and Act – and then “Loop” back to adjust and respond based on the options that emerge.
Step 1: Observe and Face the Conflict
As Shell says in Chapter 1, “When you turn toward the problem instead of away from it, you challenge yourself to become part of the solution.”
It is common to look away when you witness a misconduct that does not directly impact you. It is even more common to ignore an issue just to avoid challenging the status quo, leading to sub-optimal results in terms of creativity, productivity, and job satisfaction. ‘Ethical refugees’ choose to depart from a workplace that is devoid of ethics checks, resulting in a stampede of the best talent leaving the firm.
But is fleeing from the conflict always the right decision? What is the guarantee that the next destination will not present similar problems? Facing the challenge head-on may not be the easiest thing to do, but it is usually the right thing. You will feel better about yourself, building confidence as a leader. What’s more, standing up for your core values often empowers others to do the same thing, rallying like-minded co-workers into an…
Read More:The Code