I recently read a thought-provoking piece by Darden Professor Mary Gentile about what she calls values-based conflicts in the workplace. Gentile argues that we often hear a series of rationalizations if and when we try to raise concerns about the ethics of certain behavior in organizations. Gentile argues that it is worthwhile to step back and try to understand the nature of the objections and rationalizations. In so doing, one can formulate a more effective response and can speak up more effectively. Here are the questions we should consider according to Gentile:
- What are the main arguments you are trying to counter? What are the reasons and rationalizations you need to address?
- What’s at stake for the key parties, including those who disagree with you? What’s at stake for you?
- What levers can you use to influence those who disagree with you?
- What is your most powerful and persuasive response to the reasons and rationalizations you need to address? To whom should the argument be made? When and in what context?
I think these four questions are incredibly helpful. Moroever, I'm particularly interested in the second question. I think that question pertains to any conflict in the workplace, even if it has nothing to do with ethics. Suppose you want to question a plan of action proposed by another manager. Asking yourself what they have at stake in this situation, how invested they are in this plan, can be important, as it may help you understand the extent to which they will be defensive. Moreover, it will help you understand what might trigger interpersonal friction and conflict in this situation. If you want to engage others in a productive debate (i.e. constructive conflict), it's crucial to understand how high the stakes are for the other party, to understand where their passion and emotional investment resides.