A comprehensive analytic framework can provide a common language for discussing decisions and values with colleagues, helping to build a culture that better integrates the organization’s values into staff decision making.
Values-based decision making,” a popular term these days in both industry and academia, is commonly exemplified by Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 decision to pull Tylenol off retailers’ shelves, at a cost of $100 million to the company, after tainted capsules had been found. The company’s courageous action illustrated how decision making is a trade-off between values — in this case, choosing customer safety over short-term financial performance.1
Values-based decision making has in fact come to take on the exclusive meaning of socially responsible decision making. But while a greater emphasis on ethics is certainly praiseworthy, an important reality is being missed. All decisions — whether judged 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.
Because the values that underlie our decision making are often buried in the shortcuts we take, we need a means for revealing those values and expressly thinking through the trade-offs between them. The framework we present in this article helps a decision maker to understand that everyday decisions all have some basis in values, to sort out the specific values involved in a given decision-making event, and to make the decision with full awareness of its ethical implications.
Uncovering the Values Within
Values are enduring beliefs, both hard-wired (i.e., acquired genetically) and shaped by cultural context, about preferred “end states.”2 Whether we think about it or not, values guide our everyday behavior, even the most mundane choices. Consider the decision of whether to get up from one’s desk at work to get a cup of coffee. The decision maker may seek the coffee for physical stimulation in the interest of achievement, or perhaps to fulfill a need for affiliation in kibitzing at the coffee maker. When the person gets up to make a coffee run, one or both of those values have won out over the value of staying at the desk to keep one’s nose to the grindstone.
Values, whether neutral, virtuous or not so virtuous, drive our decision making. Even unethical, illegal or dishonest decisions are “values-based” — they’re just not reflective of higher-order “positive” values.3 For example, a decision to engage in insider trading is ultimately a choice favoring the values that hail financial gain as more important than keeping one’s integrity.