Code Word: Conscience
G. Richard Shell is the Thomas Gerrity Professor of Legal Studies, Business Ethics and Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he was chair of the Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department.
He has consulted for more than 100 businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations, among them Google, Johnson & Johnson, and the FBI. Shell is the author of four books related to the art and science of persuasion in the business world, including, most recently, The Conscience Code: Lead With Your Values. Advance Your Career.
The book comes out of a course that I teach at the Wharton School in our MBA program, called “Responsibility.” Over the years that I’ve taught it, I have experienced lots and lots of stories and examples that my MBA students have brought me about ethical values and moral challenges they faced in their prior jobs, some [of which] they felt that they’d handled decently but also some that they regretted how they had been handled. The book is really—depending on how you want to frame it—a guerrilla warfare guide for young people in the workplace to try to stand up for their values, or it’s a manual that ethics and compliance officers could use to help their employees create an ethical culture.
I’ve learned after the book came out—and I’ve engaged with a lot of people who are in the professional community about it—that you start to have to frame it a little differently depending on who you think you’re talking with.
I’ve been mainly teaching millennials. Gen Z is coming along now in the MBA world, and they’re really values-oriented people. It’s been shocking to see how many of them have used our program—I don’t think this is limited to Wharton—to pivot away from a toxic culture or boss that they didn’t have the tools to cope with and knew they didn’t want to hang out with. An MBA is a pretty expensive way to find another place to go, but it’s not a bad one. People that come to MBA programs are pivoting from one industry to another or from a traditional background in something organizational, like consulting or finance, and they want to go toward entrepreneurship. The fact that some percentage of these students are also pivoting toward resetting their moral compass to lead them more accurately to a culture and an office where they’re going to feel their values are aligned is really good news. This book is really just a field guide for them to help them manage that.
I was the chairman, until a couple of weeks ago, of the Business Ethics Department at Wharton. My main areas are negotiation, influence and persuasion. This book is the application of all that to values conflicts; that’s why it’s the guerrilla warfare guide. What I expected, as I dove into writing a book on this subject, was an ethical analysis, puzzles and problems—what do we do if we’re in a culture where the values are different than the values that we might have for the company. What I realized as I got into it—and I took on the perspective of the employee, not the board of directors—was the role that emotions play and how these get managed and processed, how central they are to being able to act effectively and to have the emotional intelligence to turn what we conceive of as negative emotions (fear, anger, guilt, shame) into positive motivations.
We’re in an era of positive thinking and positive motivations. There’s lots of research about how healthy that is for you, and we all want to have days where our positive emotions outnumber our negative ones. But it’s still the case that negative emotions can play a positive role in people’s lives. If you look at the summer of 2020, we saw the social injustice, outrage, the anger, the emotions that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement, the revisiting of social justice in America and even reviewing history in a new light. Those were volatile and hot emotions, but when they were channeled properly, they become the fuel for being effective as an advocate on behalf of very valuable ethical principles. Without the anger, they don’t have the energy. Organizations and people respond to energy.
Think of yourself as a person of conscience. In addition to being a manager, salesperson, supervisor, entrepreneur, add a slash to your job title and put “Person of Conscience” after that. I think most people are people of conscience. They know right from wrong, behave in a way where they try to do their best on values at home. They take action in their communities. They may be politically active, or at least they vote. There are people of conscience, but sometimes that gets faded out at work among all the pressures that come to bear, and many rationalizations can dull the sense that you’re a person of conscience. It’s an identity thing. Bring that, and then I would go along with you.
Once you’ve solidly got “Person of Conscience” on your ID or in your DNA, then don’t do it alone. You know something’s wrong, you’re not sure what to do, you feel stressed and anxious about that. Talk about it, get to somebody in the organization who’s a colleague, friend or mentor, someone you trust that you can share this with. And then begin thinking, “All right, what are we going to do about it?” That ally is so important in overcoming these fundamental human wirings. The power of two sounds like common sense, but it’s easy to forget, especially under pressure of a conflict.
My students have taught me. They come to class with an example of, everyone at one of the top consulting firms in the world is cheating on their expense accounts. They’re doing it for a whole host of reasons—“Everybody does it” is the principal one. As soon as you discover that everybody else is cheating on their expense account, you’re sort of a sucker if you don’t. Then your moral sense is dulled, and you say, “Well, I work hard. I deserve this little tip of an extra 50 bucks a day. So I’ll just cheat on my expense accounts too.” Whenever you’re in one of these moments, the rationalization is popping up instantaneously. I think the most important thing, when you know that that’s going to happen, is to let the better angel have a voice.
That’s why I say “person of conscience” is such an important idea, because it’s easy to subject a rationalization to a follow-up question: everybody does it, but what would a person of conscience do? All of a sudden, you say, “I know my grandmother is a person of conscience, and she wouldn’t cheat on her expense accounts, even if everybody else did.” Without throwing your friends under the bus, your value strategy is now, “Maybe I should bring this up to my mentor and say, ‘The firm’s clients are being systematically ripped off by virtue of people claiming expenses that are false. It’s bad for morale, the firm and the clients. What’s a problem-solving way that we can fix this so that people won’t cheat on their expense accounts?’”
What do you think this higher-up is going to think about you? You’re a good employee. This is a real problem. We’d like to solve it. Here’s this leader who just brought it to our attention, and they’re doing it in a really effective way. They’re not screaming and hollering or behaving weirdly. That’s what leaders ought to do: identify value conflicts that are bad for the organization, bring it to the people who want the best for the organization and its people, and start figuring out how to solve them.
Being an advocate for values and being self-righteous are two different personal qualities. Say the corporate card comes out to pay for personal lunch. It is a problem. If you can get into your friend’s head, they probably have a bunch of rationalizations like, “Everybody does it,” or, “I didn’t charge the last lunch; I’m going to charge this one.” They’ve got it all justified in their head.
Have you ever read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People? His fundamental insight at the very beginning of that book—and it carries it all the way through—is everybody wants to think well of themselves all the time. When it comes to somebody doing something less than ethical, when you point that out, they’re immediately going to say, “I’ve got a huge defense system that is going to protect me from that.” A person of conscience would not let this happen, so now you have to ask your friend in a gentle way, “I think you might have put the wrong card out. This was a personal lunch, and I’ll be happy to pay for it with my card.” Then they’ll share their rationalization with you, if they have one. You could just go, “Well, I’m uncomfortable with that. If it’s OK with you, let me pay for it.” There’s no harm in that, and you’re not accusing them of anything. Fifty percent of the time, the other person is embarrassed, and they know that they shouldn’t have done it. The fact that you’ve given them a face-saving way to protect the moment, they’ll appreciate and trust you more. The other 50% of the time, they are actually trying to do something wrong. You caught them, and they’re going to look out for you now because you’re not going to be complicit. It’s very often the case that someone who’s on the wrong path is not just on one wrong path. Now you’ve got something really important you need to share with somebody who can do something about it. I’m a big believer in giving problems to other people.
Welcome to the club. There are lots of people [who] are accommodating and avoiding. There’s a whole chapter on personality, and that’s the hidden iceberg in ethics. People seem to think that, as long as you know what the right thing to do is, then after that you’re either a good person and you do something about it or you’re a bad person and you don’t. That’s not really what’s going on.
People have personalities, and the very fact that there’s a conflict—whether it’s a conflict over bargaining with a salesperson to get your new car or a conflict over whether or not you’re going to try to figure out what to do about this predator who’s hitting on the intern—both of them are going to cause you the same level of anxiety if you’re someone who dislikes interpersonal confrontation. It’s important for people to know that they have this inclination to avoid conflict as a personality thing. It’s not a moral thing; it’s not a failing.
You think, “OK, I’m not the best spokesperson or point person. I want to arrange this so I bring someone who’s got a little bit more of a blunt, assertive way of handling conflict into my circle of allies, who I’m going to rally and then stand with them and say, ‘Me too.’” This person has a certain sensitivity, and you have to be careful not to get them angry, because if they do, then we’ll lose the meeting. Avoiders may be not great at being confrontational, but they’re excellent at diplomatic tactfulness. I think that knowledge of who you are just helps you be more strategic in how you behave and to not shut down.
It all comes back to complementing your organizational intelligence, personal skills and the options that may be available to move something along in a very positive way. It’s so clear, and it’s likely that people will do it alone because they just feel the burden. They don’t know that sharing is the starter kit for success.