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Giving Voice to Values: A book review by Bob Morris

Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right
Mary C. Gentile
Yale University Press; First Edition (2010)

How to express your values more eloquently and act upon them more effectively

As I began to read this brilliant book, I was reminded of James O’Toole’s contribution to a book he co-authored with Warren Bennis and Daniel Goleman, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, when O’Toole discusses “speaking to power.” He briefly examines several plays (Sophocles’ Antigone, John Osborne’s Luther, and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons) whose protagonist offers a reminder to leaders in our own time of the responsibility to create a transparent “culture of candor.” O’Toole also examples of organizations that do — or do not — have such a culture, those whose leaders are – or are not — “constantly willing to rethink their most basic assumptions through a process of constructive dissent…about such often-taboo subjects as the nature of working conditions they offer employees, the purposes of their corporation, and their responsibilities to various stakeholders.” Whatever the size and nature of an organization may be, O’Toole insists, it must be one “one in which every employee is empowered to speak the truth.” Trust must be the essential ingredient to its effectiveness [and is] the most elusive and fragile aspect of leadership” because it is so difficult to earn but so easy to lose and, once lost, nearly impossible to regain.

I hope Gentile will forgive me for beginning this review as I have. She and O’Toole are kindred spirits. Both stress the importance of focusing on an awareness of ethical issues and then determining with meticulous care what would be the right thing to do in a moral crisis. However, well-aware of the perils of the “Knowing-Doing Gap,” she and O’Toole also stress the importance of taking appropriate action in a timely manner, driven by values to be sure but also guided and informed by scripts, rehearsals, and other preparations that will achieve the desired results. It is Gentile’s stated purpose to help her reader develop the skills and confidence as well as “the moral muscle” to express and affirm their values. She proceeds on the assumption that “most of us will encounter values in conflict with the expectations of our clients, our peers, our bosses, or our organizations. That is why this skill and practice-based approach is essential.”

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, we have a Famers Market at which some of the merchants offer sample slices of fresh fruit. In that same spirit, here are three brief excerpts from Gentile’s lively and eloquent narrative that suggest the thrust and flavor of her insights:

“Recognizing the fact that we are all capable of speaking and acting on our values, as well as the fact that we have not always done so, is both empowering and enlightening…It opens a oath to self-knowledge, as well as situational analysis, that we may otherwise shirt-circuit.” (Page 49)

“One of the most powerful enablers we have identified has been the ability to reframe a position: an opportunity with less than ethical attributes is reframed as a risk we all want to avoid; a disagreement that appears to throw the ethics of our audience into doubt is reframed as a `learning dialogue’ wherein we are trying to uncover the true parameters of a possible decision; a win-lose choice is reframed through the use of argument and research as a win-win situation; seemingly self-evident assumptions or `truisms’ are reframed as debatable or even patently false.” (Page 67)

One of the most promising levers for enabling us to voice our values “appears to be generating a self-story that allows us to find ways to align what we think is right with who we already think we are. The point here is that how we incorporate values conflicts into our self-story can serve to enable, or disable, our ability to act on our values. It can allow us to play to our strengths, or not. Creating this story is not just about self-knowledge; it is about the way we choose to use that self-knowledge…[especially in light of research] suggesting that most of us are susceptible to self-justifying biases or finding ways to view our decisions as positively motivated, even when we would be critical of someone else who made the same choices.” (Page 115)

Gentile frames her narrative within a structure of several assumptions about her reader. For example, that her reader wants to voice and act on her or his values; has already done so in the past, with mixed results; can do so more often and more effectively than before; has found it easier to voice her or his values in some contexts or situations than in others; is more likely to increase frequency and effectiveness of voicing and acting upon values after focused and rigorous practice; and can offer “a powerful example” to others to voice and act on their own values more often and more effectively. Readers will greatly appreciate the fact that, before concluding her book, Gentile provides various resources (including some self-diagnostic exercises) that will help them to review key points, identify and then evaluate their options, and then formulate an appropriate action plan. She includes a “To-Do” list on Pages 244-245.

For some people, hopefully for many people, this will be the most important book they ever read IF they absorb and digest the wealth of information and counsel with meticulous care. I urge them to highlight or underline key passages and review them frequently… and re-read the entire book again in 2-3 months. It will reward their attention generously. More to the point, it will strengthen the skills they need to think more clearly and to assert themselves more effectively. Mary Gentile does more, so much more than encourage principled people to speak up and take action when they know what’s right and what must be done. She also prepares them to speak with greater eloquence and to increase the impact of any actions their conscience compels them to initiate.

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Bob Morris is an independent management consultant based in Dallas who specializes in high-impact knowledge management and accelerated executive development. He has also reviewed more than 2,200 business books for Amazon’s US, UK, and Canadian websites. Each week, we will add to the Networlding Business Bookshelf abbreviated versions in which he discusses a few of his personal favorites. To contact him directly:

Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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