The Code

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 effective coalition.

Shell notes a surprising fact: “otherwise troubling emotions such as anger, guilt, and shame can play positive roles in motivating you to take action. It is really a question of channeling your moral outrage constructively and recognizing that taking action now can avoid painful feelings of guilt or shame that may arise later if you look away.”  

Finally, Shell advises his readers to become familiar with the pressures that can make speaking truth to power hard (and inspire rationalizations to do nothing), including peer pressure, pressures from bosses, the power of perverse incentives, and the expectations that come with corporate roles we may occupy. In his book, Shell quotes the whistleblower who helped bring to light the massive Enron corporate accounting scandal in 2001, Sherron Watkins. She once said that all you need to create an ethical crisis in an organization are three things: pressure, opportunity, and a face-saving rationalization. The first step in being a leader for your values is recognizing this pattern so you do not get caught in its web.

Step 2: Own the Situation – Take Responsibility

With awareness of the difficulties that obscure justice and fairness, one is better prepared to stand up for one’s core values. The second section of the book offers valuable insights for ‘taming’ fear and harnessing courage so you can lean into the conflict.  Shell notes that the greatest enemy of character is rationalization.

“Even bad people think well of themselves,” he says. Thus, a boss or colleague who is pressuring you to do something wrong very likely believes that they are nevertheless a good person. “This requires them to be adept at various forms of self-deception, especially denial and rationalization” (Shell 73).  He encourages readers to recognize the most common rationalizations that can beguile you into going along with misconduct you know to be wrong, such as “everybody does it,” “just this once,” “I have no choice,” and “nobody will notice.”

A second barrier to speaking up is having a conflict-averse personality. Shell provides a useful Conflict Attitudes Assessment to help readers identify their personal conflict styles, which in turn provides a deeper understanding of personality strengths that can be leveraged in making ‘speaking up for the right reasons’ an easier quest.

One of the key insights in the book is what Shell called “The Power of Two.”  Never take on a values conflict alone. As he writes, “Working with others in support of a cause increases everyone’s courage and confidence” (Shell 133).  The Power of Two is a powerful way to overcome personality-based barriers and push rationalizations to the side so you can take effective action.

Step 3: Decide to Act

In the third section of the book, Shell introduces four time-tested decision factors that have helped people make tough choices in social dilemmas for centuries. These mirror the traditional content of business ethics courses, but present them in actionable form as the “CLIP” factors. These are a set of four questions to help you uncover 1) potential consequences of a decision, 2) issues related to conflicting loyalties, 3) identity-affecting concerns (“Who will I be if I refuse to take action in this situation?”), and 4) the core principles you hold that must be upheld.

Step 4: Take Action, Then Adjust Based on the Response 

The final step on the journey is to take effective action to protect your values. This section of the book presents a detailed set of alternatives that apply in every organizational setting. As an expert in negotiation and persuasion, Shell presents examples of good dialogue techniques that include asking good questions, careful listening, reframing the problem so others can understand it in their terms, providing the other party with the arguments and information they need to persuade themselves. 

Shell demonstrates how it possible to transform conflicts into collaborations by aligning principles and incentives for the most appropriate outcome.

When dialogue fails, other tactics may be pertinent. As Shell puts it, “These include elevating an issue to higher levels of authority, reporting misconduct to appropriate tribunals, using political pressure to motivate change, and, that most dramatic of all moves—whistleblowing” (Shell 10). The central idea is to promote accountability that serves as a ‘wake-up call’ when ethical standards are compromised. 

The final chapter of the book is a call for committed, integrity-based leadership, coaxing you to be the leader who is a patron of value-based work culture in which morale, productivity and trust thrive. Shell points out that it is not only about doing things right (duty-of-care values), but also about doing the right thing (ethical values) and being the right kind of person (character values). 

Conclusion

This short article provides only a high-level overview of the contents of The Conscience Code, but rest assured that the book that is a storehouse of compelling real-world examples and stories. As anyone who has read one of his other books knows, Richard Shell collects and integrates research with vivid examples of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences—then creates frameworks that are roadmaps for action. His books are often several books rolled into one, and this one is no exception. 

To sum up: this book from the author of the Springboard, the book that is the backbone of the Wharton School’s renowned P3 program, provides great insights into the concept of responsible leadership. It presents compelling talking points for professionals of all age groups, and I highly recommend it for young professionals, especially those considering career advancement through MBA and other leadership development programs.

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