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How to Make Values Count in Everyday Decisions

Much lip service is given today to “values-based decision making,” with the implication that the underlying values are “good” values, occupying high moral ground. But the fact is that all decisions — whether highly ethical, grossly unethical or anywhere in between — are values-based. That is, a decision necessarily involves an implicit or explicit trade-off of values.

The values represented in a particular decision are not always easy to identify and evaluate, however, and the shortcuts that people often take in decision making can make deeper analysis of values all the more difficult.

This article presents a framework designed to explore the values implicit in decisions. Moving systematically from concrete consequences to higher-ordered values, the framework, embodied in a decision-mapping technique, helps the decision maker think through what is gained and what is given up as a result of a decision. It also encourages an expansion of choice options, motivates a more balanced view of positive and negative consequences, and provides insight into the dynamics of decision making.

When good people at times say yes to bad — unethical or illegal — actions, there are four possible reasons: (a) the organization’s values are fuzzy to them, leading them to resort to undeveloped intuition and expedient criteria, (b) they may not be clear on their own values, (c) their interpretation of probability conveniently favors their a priori preferred option, or (d) they see no other options (they believe their hands are tied).

Each of these possibilities reflects issues that senior managers need to account for directly in addressing ethical decision making in their organizations. Illustrating the framework through a case study based on actual events, the article aims to help managers build a culture that better integrates the organization’s values into staff members’ decisions.

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