One of the most powerful lenses through which to view values in the workplace – and one of the most powerful sources of the strength and confidence to act on those values – is the lens of self-knowledge. Knowledge of oneself allows the crafting and embracing of a desired self-image. Managers at all levels in their firms report that a significant enabler of values-based action is the clarity, commitment, and courage that is born of acting from our true centre, finding alignment between who we already are and what we say and do. Some people say they are able to voice and act on their values because they have always had a strong sense of right and wrong and a need to act on this conviction. Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut describes this kind of moral courage as a person’s commitment to “shape the pattern of his life – his thoughts, deeds, and attitudes – in accordance with the design of his nuclear self.”
Not everyone sees themselves this way, however. Let’s borrow a taxonomy from Gregory Dees and Peter Crampton’s discussion of ethical negotiations (Business Ethics Quarterly, April 1991). They argue that most people categorise themselves as “idealists” (who attempt to act on their moral ideals no matter what), “pragmatists” (who seek a balance between their material welfare and their moral ideals), or “opportunists” (who are driven exclusively by their own material welfare). Dees and Crampton point out that most people fall into more than one of these categories at different times and depending on the issue, but in our experience with business students and practitioners, the largest group is those who self-identify as pragmatists. They want to act on their values but do not wish to place themselves at a “systematic disadvantage” by doing so. This does not mean that they would never pay a price for voicing and acting on their values, but rather that they believe it may be credibly possible that they could be successful.