There seems to have been a series of news headlines of late detailing what we’ll call ‘lapses in leadership judgement’. When organisations and leaders lose their way, what they’ve often lost is the anchor to their values. Voicing our personal values at work has never been more important nor felt more difficult. In this interview, voice and executive coach, Susan Room, explores how to overcome our hesitation to speak up and voice our values in a professional and constructive way. Listen to the audio version below.
Alex: Hi, I’m Alex Duff and I’m talking with leading voice and executive coach, Susan Room, about how we can all better voice our values at work. Susan, before we get to how we do that, could I first start by asking you why it’s important we do it? Susan: There’s this great quote that says: “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies.”
I think it’s by American writer, director, and TV host, Jon Stewart. It’s powerful because it’s a stark reminder that when it comes to values, there’s often a gulf between what we think, what we say and ultimately what we do in the workplace.
And that gulf can cause serious problems. We need to voice our values for two reasons:
The first is that they act as a moral compass for the organisations we work with. But the second is personal, because failing to voice our values over time stops us being authentic, and I think that can ultimately destroy us.
We spend so much time working. For many of us, work is so much more than a monthly pay check. What we do becomes a part of who we are.
So, when our values persistently misalign at work it makes us desperately unhappy, or we leave.
Alex: Is that something you’ve ever done – leave a job because of a values clash? Susan: Yes, three times actually.
In my corporate life, I always picked my values over money even if it meant walking away from six figure salaries – which I did three times.
When I finally left corporate life to train as a coach, I thought those values clashes would disappear, but they don’t.
For me, whether you are employed or self-employed, the best working relationships happen when the values of those involved closely align.
There have been instances for example, when a CEO or board director has invited me to coach individuals or multiple teams through a problem or problems they are experiencing.
Once we get into it, I discover the root problem isn’t with individuals or teams – it’s higher up.
When I hear people voicing anger and frustration because they feel their values are being compromised daily by their employers, I have two choices.
1. I can stay quiet, keep going, take the money and run (in coaching we call this ‘collusion’), or…
2. I hold the space for them to vent, then coach them to decide how they will change what they don’t like. I can also, only with their permission of course, share with those higher up generic observations and recommendations that move things forward.
That’s what I do because colluding is not coaching. When things don’t align with my values I speak up, even if it is difficult and jeopardizes lucrative work.
Alex: That sounds like courage. What is it you think we’re most afraid of when it comes to voicing our values?
Susan: Thanks. I’m much braver now than I was in corporate life. Back then, I didn’t always voice my values as quickly as I would do today.
To your question about what we’re most afraid of, I think it’s a couple of things. The first is the basic human need to be liked. Speaking out when our values are challenged can feel like going out on a limb. That metaphor says it all – going out on a limb. And secondly, it’s the fear of the fall out.
Let’s not be naïve. Voicing our values isn’t always consequence free.
And those consequences aren’t always financial – like walking away from an employer and giving up a good salary.
Early in my corporate career I had a role that came with an office right next to the Chairman’s, overlooking the River Thames.
‘You’ve made it’, I thought.
Then reality kicked in. I was constantly asked to do things that compromised my values.
Eleven months later, just before I left, I was sitting in the typing pool (back then there were still typing pools).
What I was saying and doing wasn’t going down well – at all.
I was challenging everybody - voicing my values, and that felt good.
What felt awful was that I was doing so in a very emotional way because I wasn’t as good at managing my emotions then as I am now.
Before I walked away from the role and the money, I allowed that job to take a huge toll on me.
Of course, this example pales into insignificance when compared to the Russian journalist who recently voiced her values about the war on Ukraine, live on TV, with her placard.
Despite being embedded in the system for a decade or more and knowing there would be consequences, she chose to voice her values.
Her kids are now saying ‘mum you’ve ruined our life’.
Talk about having the courage of your convictions.
Alex: Now I hear you say that, voicing your values sounds very risky. What are the upsides to voicing your values at work? Susan: For me it’s the magic ingredient – the secret sauce – for being and staying authentic - true to yourself.
That matters whether you are just starting out or reaching the end of your career.
And it’s particularly important for leaders because you are the person that others look up to.
You set the tone and sculpt the culture.
When someone crosses your values line, it feels unjust, and who wants to work for an unjust organisation?
Voicing our values at work often means finding ways to say ‘that’s not okay’. Ultimately, we’re looking to make a situation and the world better. We want the brands we work for to say something positive about who we are.
Alex: I can relate to that.
Early in my career I worked as a communications advisor at P&O Ferries. It’s always been a brand I’ve been proud of. Over the years they’ve undoubtedly faced into some difficult challenges, but I always felt they did so with quite a lot of skill and decency.
I left there 20 years ago, but these last few weeks, the way they fired 800 crew has left me feeling sad and angry. How they’ve treated people is a shocking example of leadership.
I’m sad because the actions of the current senior team are so far removed from the business I so fondly remember and the lived values I saw while working there.
But I’m also angry because a part of my professional identity, a part I’ve been so proud of for so long, has been forever tarnished. I feel severely let down by that, so I guess there’s no time limit on how the brands we work for impact our identity and make us feel.
I’m interested though Susan, in something you said too about your own experiences earlier on in your career. You said when you voiced your values you were getting emotional. Isn’t getting emotional normal? Susan: Yes, it’s absolutely normal to feel emotions. It’s what we do with them that matters.
If we allow fear, anger, disappointment and resentment to stop us from voicing our values, we just compound the problem.
If we push through those negative emotions but allow them to dominate when we speak, then, arguably, we are venting, rather than viably voicing our values.
That’s the mistake I made in that earlier employment. I was much younger then, I didn’t have the tools and techniques I have and share today to manage my emotions. I wasn’t able to voice my values in a professional, constructive way. Alex: That suggests there’s a way we can voice our values without getting emotional?
Susan: There really is. I call it ‘Vent, then Voice’. Give yourself time and space, rather than react in the moment. Step away, process the emotion and reactivity, then act.
It’s fine to vent; but do it with family, friends or in a confidential space - like with your coach or the recording app on your phone.
That will enable you to move past the anger and frustration, then to engage rationally and constructively in a way that moves things forward.
Alex: But how do we know when our values are being compromised?
Susan: I think we intuitively know when we hear or see something that isn’t right. It’s often a physical reaction that doesn’t feel comfortable, like a tightening of the throat, heat in the chest or that sinking feeling in the stomach. Those physical sensations are powerful data that we ought to trust more.
Typically, we rely on our five main senses all the time - taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing, but we also have myriad internal sensors within our body and these are picking up on changes in heart rate, blood pressure, temperature. We physically feel it in our body. It’s why we say things like ‘this just doesn’t feel right’ or ‘my gut tells me this isn’t working’. Let’s tap into that more, listen to what’s going on internally, then see it as an invitation to speak.
Alex: You’ve talked about the reasons that prevent us accepting that invitation to speak up, so how do we find the confidence to overcome our hesitation and do so?
Susan: It’s about saying no.
That can be really hard, but there are ways we can get much better at it.
Anyone that’s participated in my Make Your Mark coaching programme, has heard me talk about Ury’s positive no.
That’s William Ury, who is an author, academic and negotiation expert and he has much to offer here. His positive no technique is really helpful when it comes to values because rather than thinking about saying no, which feels scary, Ury invites us first to think about what we are saying yes to.
So, in the case of our values, we’re saying ‘no’ to something we don’t feel is right, but we’re saying ‘yes’ to what matters, what we believe in – our values.
Business is about creating and adding value not just maximising profits.
Yet when organisations lose their way, like P&O Ferries, what they’ve often lost is the anchor to their values.
So, for me, saying yes to our values at work, feels more important than ever.
We do that firstly by noticing those things we don’t feel comfortable with at work. Then pushing ourselves to find the confidence to speak up and say ‘no, that’s not right’, but doing so in a professional, collaborative, and constructive way - we speak our truth, stay authentic and make positive change happen. Alex: Thanks Susan. That feels like the perfect note to close on. Next time, I’d love to hear more about how we can use our voice to voice our values confidently, collaboratively and constructively.
Susan: Thank you Alex. I've really enjoyed this conversation.
Susan Room is a former corporate leader, turned voice and executive coach. One rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching, her unique approach and her Make Your Mark programme now sees her help others feel, look and sound confident – improving performance and happiness at work. Susan was interviewed by Communications Advisor, Alex Duff.