Giving Voice To Values: How To Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right

May 12, 2011

Global Ethics Forum TV Show

Full Event Video

Through experiential exercises that act as rehearsals, we can learn to how to act on our values in real-life situations, says Mary Gentile. She shares a ground-breaking new approach that prepares professionals to respond to ethical challenges in the workplace.


JEFF HITTNER: I'm Jeff Hittner, chairperson of the Carnegie New Leaders. It's my great pleasure to introduce my friend and someone who really is blazing a new path in terms of education and engagement on the topic of ethics.

We have Mary Gentile here today. Her résumé is almost too long to describe, but suffice to say she has a new book out, Giving Voice to Values. Mary will actually describe it a lot better than I will, so I will leave it for her.

But what's really important here is that this is a topic that is obviously on the top of all of our minds, especially living in a city like New York, where our ethics can be challenged on a daily basis, whether it's in our businesses and organizations or in our daily lives. To get some perspective on how to, as Mary's book describes, give a voice to what our values are, is really critical, both from a societal perspective and also to be happy with who we are and how we approach our careers and our personal lives.

With that, I want to turn it over to Mary and have her present Giving Voice to Values.


MARY GENTILE: Thank you, Jeff.

I'm really glad to be here tonight. Judging from the conversations I had up on the balcony a few minutes ago, this is a really interesting group. You come from lots of different backgrounds. I'm looking forward to getting some different kinds of questions and ideas.

What I want to do tonight is share some stories with you, basically tell you the story about what Giving Voice to Values is, how it developed, and what I'm trying to do with it. Then, with the encouragement of Jeff—he suggested that I could use you guys as a bit of a sounding board and some guinea pigs to do a little free consulting to me. As you will hear from my story, I have developed Giving Voice to Values as a curriculum and a pedagogy for use in MBA programs in business schools. But we are growing beyond that very rapidly. We are being invited to share it with schools of engineering, with medical schools, and now with major corporations as well.

When you hear me describe Giving Voice to Values, which was developed for business education, a lot of times it was about saying no to things that you were being asked to do that you thought were wrong. But increasingly we are also working with people to figure out that there are ways to say yes, to voice your values affirmatively to things that you think need to be changed. There are a lot of similar skills and there are also some different ones. We can talk about that if you like.

Basically, I want to tell you the story of Giving Voice to Values, or, as I will refer to it, GVV, for short.

It is a new and innovative approach to thinking about, teaching about, and acting on our values and values-driven leadership in the workplace. It was developed with venture funding from the Aspen Institute and from the Yale School of Management and is currently based and funded through Babson College. It's being used around the world. We are on six continents now. We have not broken into the Antarctic. So if any of you have connections, let me know. But it's being used in well over 125 sites that we know of. We make the materials free online to educators, so we know that it's being used in a lot more than that. It has a pretty strong reach.

Let me tell you where it came from. I'm going to start by going back to my first introduction to business education, which was back in the mid-1980s. My first job at a business school was at the Harvard Business School. I had come out of a doctorate in literature and film, so I felt like I had gone through the looking-glass when I ended up at Harvard Business School.

I remember in my first few weeks there, I sat in on the orientation for all the incoming MBA students, which at the time were about 800. It's larger now. What they would do is, they would bring the whole cohort of first-year MBA students into one room, and the dean would stand up in front of them and he would say a number of things, but one of the things he would say is, "Look to the left of you. Look to the right of you"—and this is not unique to Harvard—"These people are going to be your career network for the rest of your lives." And then he would pause dramatically.

He was doing a number of things when he said this. One thing he was communicating is, "You are all really special, you're select, you're the crème de la crème." So there was a certain amount of ego stroking going on.

There was also some amount of backstroking and slapping for Harvard, because "we attracted all of you wonderful people."

The other thing that he was suggesting is, "You people are all going somewhere. You're all going to have splendid, impressive careers. You're going to be leaders in a lot of major organizations. These people are a career network for you. They are going to be able to be people you can call on throughout your lives. That's one of the benefits of coming here."

This is a resource, but also implicit in that is, "You don't want to irritate anybody too much, because you are going to want to be able to call on them."

It was an interesting message to give at the very beginning of the two-year educational experience. It set an interesting tone. I wasn't completely comfortable with it, but it was interesting, and I could understand why he was doing it.

But a few years later, I was invited to work with the core team of faculty who were designing Harvard Business School's first required curriculum around values and ethics. We decided that we had an opportunity to do something a little bit different.

In the beginning of that program—it was after orientation, but it was at the beginning of their first year—we would stand up in the classroom and say, "Look to the left of you. Look to the right of you. By the time you've gone through this required course on decision making and values, these people will be your network for the rest of your lives and people that you can call on when you encounter ethical or values conflicts, and people whom you come out to, if you will, as someone who cares about doing the right thing, and folks whom you can call on and say, 'Help me figure out what the right thing to do is here. Help me decide what's right.'"

We thought, "That's an interesting step." It was taking a step forward from that earlier story, but certainly not sufficient.

But we continued to work in the area. I was at Harvard for ten years. I left in the mid-1990s and then I started consulting with other business schools around their curriculum in these areas. I was working in this field for quite a while. In the late 1990s, the beginning of the 2000s—the turn of the last century—I had what I call a crisis of faith. I basically began to feel that maybe teaching business ethics was unethical. It started to feel to me that it was a bit rote, that it was kind of checking off a box. Every time there was a scandal, some donor would complain and say, "You need to teach better ethics. Our brand is being deteriorated. We're a Harvard MBA," or a Wharton MBA or a Chicago MBA, "and people are associating us with the folks who are doing the perp walks in the newspapers."

So we would put some new class in place or we would hire some new chaired faculty member. But the scandals kept coming. What was happening in the classroom discussions didn't necessarily feel to me to be that constructive. I even was at a conference with a bunch of the leading business ethics faculty from around the country. After we had all given our talks, we were doing a shared panel. I remember there was one of these guys, whom I had known for years, who was talking about how there had recently been some studies that had showed that when they surveyed students before their courses and then after their courses in business ethics and in MBA programs, they were less ethical afterward.

I had a crisis of faith. Life is short. You don't want to spend your time doing something that's a waste of time and that is just making someone feel good because they can check off the box.

I stepped away from this for a little while. I still was working with business educators around curriculum, but not specifically always ethics.

Around that time, I got invited to do a consulting gig at Columbia Business School here in New York. My gig was looking at issues around environmental and social impact, but they were also doing something around ethics at the same time that I was not—this project was not my idea, but they told me about it. What they were doing was inviting all of their incoming MBA students, which at the time was about 600, to write a little essay as they matriculated. They were asked to think about a time when their values conflicted with what they were asked to do in the workplace and then to say what they did—not necessarily that they voiced their values or they didn't, just what they did.

They all wrote these little essays. They were anonymous if they wanted. It's not scientific. It was self-reporting.

But because I was there, they let me read these essays over several years. I read well over 1,000 of these essays, and they were really interesting, and I had my "Aha" moment. Basically, what we saw was, first of all, you could count on one hand the number of folks who didn't have a story to tell. They all had been asked or told to do something that they thought was wrong at some time in their careers. Think about it. These are people who have been out in the workplace for four to six years already.

Secondly, if you think about who goes to a school like Columbia, certain industries are more heavily represented than others. They started to have similar scenarios. It got repetitious very fast. There were a lot of people from the financial services area and from the big management consulting firms. There were a good number of people from the big pharmaceutical firms and some from high-tech. The scenarios we saw were things like:

"I was told to inflate or deflate my billable hours in a way that didn't really represent what I was doing, in order to either match what we had projected or to maximize revenue."

"I was told to tamper with, adjust the equations that I used to evaluate the relative attractiveness or lack of attractiveness of a particular financial transaction, in order to maximize revenue and encourage the client to do what my employer wanted them to do."

"I was told to puff up the capabilities of a new product"—maybe a new drug or a new piece of software—"beyond what the data actually substantiated it could do."

And there were the ubiquitous human resource issues around hiring, firing, and discrimination.

The scenarios got repetitious, but the responses differed. The responses fell into four recognizable buckets.

The first and largest bucket was people who said, "Yes, I encountered this kind of a conflict, and it really bothered me. It didn't just roll off my back. But I didn't really think I had any option. So I just sucked it up and I did what they told me to do. I thought it was wrong, but I didn't feel like I had a choice."

That was the largest group, a little less than half.

Then there was a small group who said, "Yes, I encountered this kind of conflict. It bothered me so much I couldn't do it. But I also couldn't think of anything else to do. So I removed myself from the situation."

Some of these people quit. Some of these people got themselves transferred to another work group. But that was a very small group.

About a third of the people were saying, "Yes, I encountered this. It bothered me, and I tried to do something."

A small group of those said, "I tried and I failed."

But about a quarter of the whole group said, "I tried and, by my lights, I was successful."

So what we started to do was to slice and dice the data, to look at the scenarios, to kind of say, they are at the same organizations. There are certain businesses that send their managers to Columbia. They are in the same industries.

They are in the same kinds of positions. They are having the same kinds of conflicts. Yet some of them think there's something they can do, and do it effectively, and many of them think there's nothing they can do. They either give in or leave.

We thought, what's different about these groups? So we started going back and forth. It didn't seem from reading their scenarios—again, not scientific, but provocative—that one group was more morally troubled than the other group.

It didn't seem to be about good and bad people, basically, because they had all identified this as something that bugged them. It didn't seem that one group was more sophisticated or organizationally savvy than the other group. Some of the folks who found ways to voice and act on their values were very clever and came up with these amazing win-wins. But some of them were really clumsy and even naïve in the way they did it.

We kept going back and forth. We couldn't find anything. In the end, the only thing that we could identify was that the folks who were able to voice and act on their values effectively, at some point, said something outside of their own heads. It may have started out as talking to a spouse, partner, or friend, but eventually it found its way into the organization, and it changed the trajectory of things.

I thought at that point that there was nothing I could really do with that. I was hoping to have the answer to my crisis of faith. I didn't.

But then I remembered some research I had seen years earlier, when I was still at Harvard, on moral courage and altruism. The guys who did this research, Douglas Huneke and Perry London, had decided to interview people who had acted on their values in times of great stress and duress. They talked to people who were rescuers during World War II, people who had risked their lives to save others who were at risk during the Holocaust. They interviewed them in depth and they tried to figure out whether they had any characteristics in common. As is the way in that research, you find a list. It's usually seven. I don't really remember what they were.

But one of them stayed with me. At the time it resonated with me and it has stayed with me since. The people who said that they had found ways to act on their values had at an earlier point in their lives, when they were young adults, with someone they respected, a senior person—a parent, a teacher, a boss, a mentor—they had had the experience of rehearsing out loud "what would you do if," and then various kinds of moral conflicts.

Of course, they couldn't anticipate the Holocaust, but they had had the experience of literally—there were two pieces of it. They had literally pre-scripted themselves—in other words, they had come up with words to say—and they had said them out loud. They had voiced the intent.

I thought, well, that's kind of interesting. It's a kind of rehearsal, this pre-scripting.

I started doing interviews with scholars, businesspeople, and with some of the people who had reported voicing their values in these Columbia essays. I also started looking at a lot of the research. I found that, increasingly, there was a lot of research from many different disciplines—from social psychology, in the area of decision-making biases, heuristics, problem framing, anthropology, even cognitive neuroscience—that was suggesting that rehearsal matters, that basically what you voice, what you say, what you do, what you practice becomes a default behavior.

One of the most compelling examples of this was when I was taking a self-defense class. I had never felt the need to take a self-defense class at any point in my life, until I went to work at Harvard Business School. Go figure. But I did take this class. Some of you may have heard of it. I think it has a new name now, but it used to be called Model Mugging.

The idea was that, instead of just teaching you the moves—fist to nose, knee to groin, heel to instep—you would actually have a guy who would come into the room wearing, like, a Michelin Man suit—he was all padded—and he would literally attack you full-force. You would, of course, already have practiced the moves. But then you got to use them in this heightened-adrenaline state.

The physiological research suggested that, in fact, if you used these responses in this heightened state of adrenaline and emotional and physical tension, there was a kind of muscle memory that set in. They called it "specific-state muscle memory." If you then were, later in your life, in an experience where you were attacked, even if your brain went blank, there was this comparable physiological reaction and your body would remember. It's like when you learn a sport, your body remembers it.

All of these different inputs were suggesting that the idea of rehearsal is important. I thought, if rehearsal is important, what is it that we are teaching in business schools? Then I really got depressed, because what we were typically doing in business education and in a lot of corporations is two things. We would teach awareness and analysis, awareness being, we're going to introduce a lot of case studies so you can see the kinds of values conflicts you might encounter, so you'll recognize them when you encounter them.

This is a nice idea, and I think it's a good thing, especially in the world where you're in a global business and you are encountering things that you never thought of before, where technology is changing and our ideas of intellectual property rights are evolving as we speak. So there are a lot of things you need to be made aware of.

But then again, when you think about the kinds of things that make it to the front page of the newspaper, they are not usually those kinds of things. They are usually cases about fraud or illegality.

We also would teach analysis, which was teaching you to discipline your thinking. We'll teach you philosophy. We'll teach you utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue-based ethics. Then you will be able to reason through to figure out what the right thing to do is, which also is a very good thing to do. I'm not saying you shouldn't do these things. But it's limited.

The best limitation is illustrated in a story of when I interviewed a CEO in the course of doing all this work. He told me that whenever he hired an MBA, he would bring them in and talk to them just before he made the offer. He said he had recently been interviewing an MBA from one of the top business schools. He was talking about his education.

He said, "Did you take a business ethics class?"

The guy said, "Well, yes, it was required."

The CEO said, "What did you learn?"

He said, "I learned all the models of ethical reasoning—deontology, utilitarianism, virtue-based ethics. And then I learned that whenever you encounter a values conflict, you figure out what you want to do and then you select the model of ethical reasoning that will best support what you want to do."

Obviously, he was yanking my chain; I was the ethics lady. But there is a certain bit of truth to that. These models are not meant to tell you what is right. They are to help you think clearly. They, by definition, conflict with each other, and they certainly don't tell you how to get it done once you have figured out what is right.

So again, awareness and analysis are important, but what ends up being rehearsed in class are what one professor called "the professional rationalizations," all the kinds of excuses that we all have, some of which are true, about why maybe we can't really do this after all.

We have this model. What happens is, you are doing your work, and then something comes up and you get this feeling in your gut that something is wrong, it's probably not right. But before you even think about how you could do anything about it, you are aware that it's going to be impossible; it's going to be so hard. So all of these preemptive rationalizations rush in—well, maybe I don't have all the information, maybe the market is already discounted for this, everybody already knows this is happening, this is just the way the industry works, even if it is wrong it's not my responsibility, maybe I'll make it worse—all of those kinds of things, many of which may be true.

But what happens is, because those all rush in, we never even get to the point of thinking about what might be possible. In the course of my interviewing people and reading all those stories, we actually found out that some things were possible.

So what we have decided is to create an educational opportunity, a discussion opportunity, or, as an individual, a thinking opportunity where you separate that moment when you get that feeling in your gut that something is wrong and the moment when all the preemptive rationalizations rush in; you basically just stretch that out a bit. In that safe space you just say, "What if?" What if I actually thought this was wrong and wanted to find a way to do something different?

We create that moment in the classroom. We don't even ask students to agree that it's wrong or right. We just say, what if you did? Then their task is to literally create scripts and action plans for how they might get this done. The idea here is that typically in an ethics class—and I'm sure many of you have been in these kinds of discussions—especially in a business school, the way you show you're smart and the way you show you're sophisticated, that you have been around the block, is by pointing out, "Well, Mary, that's all well and good, but in the real world you can't do that. It just doesn't work."

The way you show you are smart and sophisticated is to come up with all the reasons why this is hard to do. It's actually easy to come up with the reasons why it's hard to do.

What we have done is, we have changed the equation. We are not asking you to commit. We are simply saying, what if you thought this was wrong? How could you get it done? So now the way you show you are smart and sophisticated is to come up with a way of doing the thing that everyone says is impossible to do. At heart, that's all it is. We are just asking a different question. Instead of asking, "What is right?" we are asking, "Once you know what you think is right, how do you get it done?" Everything was built on top of that simple idea.

Then we started interviewing people who had found ways to act on their values. We created a different kind of case study. I used to run the case-writing program at Harvard, and so I knew about traditional business school cases.

These are very different. They are very short. Some of them are just a paragraph. But you will see that they end with the person knowing what they think is right, and the question is, how do I get it done? Then we have a B case that says how she got it done.

We also created a set of exercises. One is called "A Tale of Two Stories." We actually ask people to think on their own about a time when they in their careers were asked to do something they thought was wrong and they found a way to act on their values, and to jot that story down. They answer four questions:

  • What motivated you?
  • What made it easier for you to do that—the enablers?
  • What made it harder for you to do that —the disablers?
  • How do you feel about it now?

Then we asked them to think about a time when their values conflicted and they failed to act on their values, and then answer the same four questions.

Then we have a structured small-group debrief and then a large-group debrief. What comes out of that exercise is the single most used exercise in the whole curriculum. It's so foundational, because what it says is, first of all, we have all encountered these kinds of things. Secondly, I have yet to meet someone who can't think of a time when they have voiced their values, and I have yet to meet someone who can't think of a time when they failed to do so.

So right off the bat, we suggest that it's not about good and bad people. This is about learning a skill. This is about practicing. This is about building confidence. This is rehearsal. So we have taken it out of that realm of preaching.

When people do that debrief we ask them to identify the enablers and the disablers, and what you will very quickly find is that a lot of them are widely shared amongst all of us. Those become the template for the kind of organizational culture you want to build. If you have certain things built into your culture, it makes it easier for people to stand up if they think something is wrong. If you have other things built in, it makes it more difficult. If you are going to be a leader and you are going to be a manager, these are the things you want to identify.

But you will also find that there are things that are unique to you or unique to me. I'm an introvert. For me, certain kinds of things make this harder. If you are an extrovert, there may be an entirely different set of things that make it hard for me.

What we have done when we have identified that is to create a template for what works for you. What we have learned from interviewing people who have done this is that—well, I'll say it in the reverse. I went into this thinking that in order to voice your values, you had to be brave, you had to be probably extroverted, maybe someone who doesn't mind confrontation and arguments, maybe someone who enjoys taking risks. And, therefore, I thought I was going to go to hell, because I was none of those things.

When I interviewed people, sure enough, I found people who saw themselves that way. When I asked them, "Why were you able to act on your values?"—I remember talking to this real-estate development guy who had stood up to a corrupt contractor—he said, "I've always been kind of a risk taker. I thought, why the heck not take a risk in the service of something that matters to me."

It was very much what I expected to hear. He didn't mind getting into a fight with this contractor.

But there were other people I talked to—one woman, I remember, said, "I've always been a kind of fearful person, and this seemed like the safer route."

What I started to realize is that if you know who you are, you can frame the values conflict in a way that plays to your strengths. So instead of preaching to the person who liked to take risks that he needed to be more conservative or preaching to the person who was a very conservative and fearful person that she needed to be bold—those things were not going to work—instead, what we suggested was that you can actually reframe your challenge in a way that plays to who you are, plays to your strengths. Then we developed case examples of people who had done that. We had cases of people who had stood up and been "leaderly" in a kind of extroverted way and then we had people who had taken a leadership role by asking a question.

We tried to show people that there were many different ways to do this.

I'm going to stop there. There is a lot more to say about what it is. There are seven principles. They are all described in the materials and in the book.

We started developing all this material. We have hundreds of pages of material. We made it available for free online to educators. It's free because our goal was not to create a product, but to create an idea. And it wasn't just to create an idea; it was to seed an idea. It was to generate an idea and then distribute it so that we could transform management education.

That's what we set out to do. That's what is beginning to happen.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: This is an extremely practical discipline.


QUESTIONER: The idea is that people could actually come up with actions around their own solutions or somebody else's solutions. But the underlying assumption is that there actually are solutions. But what if there aren't? The toughest ethical dilemmas don't have solutions.

MARY GENTILE: When you say solutions, are you talking about solutions as in what is right or are you talking about solutions as in how to get it done?


MARY GENTILE: I have different answers for the different parts of that question.

QUESTIONER: I mostly meant what's right. How to get it done—if there are not solutions, there is always an approach that could eventually yield a solution. It's unknowable. But the part about what's right is not practical, that's philosophical.

MARY GENTILE: Absolutely. That is the key question. That is, in fact, at the heart of Giving Voice to Values, that we flipped that question. Traditionally in business education, and even in a lot of corporate education, what we would always hear from people is that the black-and-white issues are the easy ones. It's the gray issues, the ones where it's not really clear that there is a solution, is where it's really tricky. That's where the rubber hits the road, and that is what we really need to focus on in ethics education.

What would happen is that faculty like myself would spend a lot of time creating these elaborate and pretty much, by definition, impossible case scenarios and share them with the students. I can remember one of my friends at Harvard telling me that after about the first two weeks in the class, the students were all suffering from what he called ethics fatigue. They would spend hours in endless debate about questions that literally did not have a right answer.

It's the example I gave about utilitarianism and deontology. By definition, they conflict. One is cost/benefit analysis; the other is duty-based. By definition, there are times when they are going to conflict—not always, but often.

It's not that those are not real and important issues. They clearly are. But the fact is, those are the issues where intelligent people of goodwill could reasonably and legitimately disagree. Just because I think one thing and you think something else doesn't necessarily mean that one of us is evil or is immoral. It's hard to weigh some of those things.

But there are other cases that, in fact, are much clearer that most people—maybe not everyone, but most people—would agree is actually over the line. Sometimes it's just out-and-out illegality, but not always. We never talk about those, and those are the ones that I was saying earlier are often the ones that end up on the front pages of the paper, where people literally have broken the law or lied.

What has made them difficult is that it has been difficult to figure out a way to get them done within an organizational context, where all the pressures are to go in this direction, even if you know it's against the law. But you think you will never get caught.

What we decided was, let's flip it. Let's teach people the skills to be able to voice and act on their values in these cases where most of us would agree, and they will become skillful at that. Hopefully, we will be able to address a lot of those issues that made it to the front pages.

But along the way, what you are also learning is how to talk more effectively and more persuasively and more constructively about all those issues that are insoluble.

So it's exactly the right question. But I just finally came to the conclusion that by going at it head-on—it's jiu jitsu—we were never going to get anywhere and that we needed to flip the question.

QUESTION: I go into my little examples of mostly times when I didn't say something or felt that I couldn't say something. It was, "I've only been here less than six months. How can I do it?" or, "The person who is doing whatever runs contrary to my values is so super-senior to me, how could I do this?"

How do you get beyond those barriers, to get to how I'm going to approach this?

MARY GENTILE: Those are exactly "how" issues. Those are right on target, and I'm so glad you asked it. There are different ways that we have tried to address those things. You talked about two different things. One was that you were more junior in the organization. You were newer. You had only been there six months, and someone is more senior than you.

One of the things we learned on that level issue, senior versus junior, was that when we talked to people who are very junior in an organization or very new in an organization, they would say, "I don't have any authority. I haven't built up relationships here yet. I don't have credibility and legitimacy here yet. I'm too junior. I have too much at risk. If I were more senior, if I was the CEO, I could set policy and I could do these things. But right now it's too risky for someone at my level or my short tenure."

Then we would talk to people very senior, CEOs or C-suite people, and they would say, "I have a lot of people depending on me. I would like to act on my values, but I know that the impact of my doing so—there are a lot of pressures on me. It's very risky for me to take this. If I were more junior in the organization, I would have less at stake and I could do this."

Then we would talk to people in the middle, and they would say, "I'm getting squeezed from both sides."

What we learned was that all of those reasons were true. But we nevertheless found people at every level who found ways to do it. What we started to realize is that you have different degrees of freedom, you have different constraints, and you have different levers you can pull, depending on where you are in the organization. There is always something you can do, but it's going to be very different. So we tried to intentionally create case examples at every level.

So we have the CFO, who is able to make a policy decision to address issues. But we also have the recent graduate from an undergraduate accounting program who is working for an organization that's fudging their numbers, who is addressing it in a very different way. The way he addressed it was by presenting himself as a learner and by asking questions that no one else was asking.

What we found is that there is always something you can do.

The other thing we found is that it's rarely, if ever, standing up and giving an impassioned little speech. That tends not to work. The people that we found who did this effectively found ways to understand what was at stake for everyone involved, not because it was going to change their reaction—"Now I know what's at stake for you, and so I'm going to change"—but more because they understood that maybe they could come up with an argument that would be more persuasive because they understood what the need was.

In fact, the case you have in front of you was of a woman who was in that situation. She was in a financial services firm. She was being asked to lie to the person whose portfolio they were managing because the portfolio had underperformed. She was being asked to do a different analysis and come up with an alternate benchmark so it would look like the portfolio had performed better than it actually had. She thought that was wrong. But she didn't think that she was going to have much luck having a little impassioned speech to her boss. So she came up with a creative way to talk to her boss around it, which had to do with basically providing him a face-saving kind of out, which you'll learn about in the B case.

What we found is that there is always something. It's not necessarily going to be the same thing.

Also, people have to understand that they are not necessarily going to resolve it in one conversation. A lot of times people had to actually think about something that was much more incremental.

One of the things that people fail to understand is that if what you are responding to is a systemic issue, it's not necessarily going to be solved by an individual, single action. It has to then be solved in a systemic way. But that is made up of a lot of individual choices and actions. So you put it into that larger context. We talk about that.

QUESTION: On exactly that point, that's what I was starting to think about when you were reflecting on how to bring this into corporations. My first concern is, how do you make this a safe conversation to have? That was sort of the headline for me.

I have just gone through this leadership development course, which was really interesting. One of the things that depersonalizes it and makes it safer is to have these diagnostic tools so that you can better see these structural traps or systemic issues that would lead one into these sorts of dilemmas. It takes away some of that "This is all about me, and what do I do about this?"

But it does seem to go antithetical to what you are trying to do, which is to make this personal and to make this about your values and come up with your own personal script. There is a tension there that would be really interesting to hear you explore a little bit more. You are talking about structural traps and systemic issues, but you are also trying to make this deeply personal.

So that's one issue.

Another one relates to Katie's question, thinking about where there are no clear solutions. Companies love process. Many organizations love process. That's, in part, the work that I'm doing on human rights. When companies face genuine human rights dilemmas, the guidelines that we are producing are not about the answer. When companies face conflicts between domestic law and international human rights principles, we are not giving the answer, which is, "Always follow international standards," because that's not feasible. Nor is it the other one, because that's no good either.

What's a process that you can follow? That seems to be the approach that a lot of industries are taking, such as some of the Internet companies in countries where there are issues with privacy and free expression. It's not what the answer is, but what is the process?

It's similar to my first point. How do you come up with these depersonalized frameworks that make it a safe conversation? I don't know if you might think about those in two different dimensions of your work, that you are looking at the personal element, but then also these organizational or structural or process issues.

MARY GENTILE: It's a really good question. I can answer it in the context of business school curriculums where we intentionally and explicitly try to do both. But I'm actually interested in your thoughts about how to do it in other contexts.

What we framed for an educational context, in general, is that you need to engage at both levels. We have things like "The Tale of Two Stories," which involves people right off the bat making this real for themselves. They have identified a time when they have done this—"I can do this." They have also identified a time when they didn't—"I screwed up." They have reflected on what made that possible.

Then, we have them share the positive stories with their peers because we think it's really important for people to actually hear, when they have been not only given permission, but they have been told they have to share a positive story.

People don't want to do that. They are either afraid it will sound like bragging or that they will sound naïve. One way or the other, it's problematic. So we say you have to, and then they generate the enablers.

This is hugely empowering. They see people actually do this—even you. I was thinking you were so-and-so in the class. That's empowering.

We ask them not to share the negative story, as in telling it, for a variety of reasons. One is confidentiality, although we always tell them not to use names and organizations. But the other is that we don't want them to imprint on a lot of negative stories. But we do ask them to talk with each other about why this one was different. What made the time when you failed to voice and act on your values harder and different so that you couldn't? They identify all those disablers. Those become something that they can then think systematically about.

That is a part where we want them to engage personally. We create boundaries around it to make it safe. But it is a classroom, and they can do some of that.

There's one other piece that is very personal. We have them do a self-assessment. It's not the usual kind of ethics self-assessment, where you do values-clarification exercises, where you come up with the values that are important to you. What I have found in doing that is that if you are really talking about moral values—not just, I like country and you like city, but if you are really talking about moral values—after a while, people come up with the same set of values—honesty, respect, integrity. It's like motherhood and apple pie, and it becomes very boring.

Instead, what we have done with the self-assessment is that we ask them to reflect on a couple of things which come out of our interviews, a part of the seven pillars—their professional and career purpose, what they want to accomplish. We also ask them to think about several categories of their skills or strengths. What is my preferred communication style? Do I like to be a teacher or a learner? The introvert/extrovert question. Do I enjoy arguing or not?

We ask them to think about their risk profile. Do they like taking risks? Are they risk-averse?

We ask them if they prefer working individually or collaboratively.

We have a number of these categories, which seem to be significant.

What we have found is that if you fall into one or the other, it doesn't make it so that you can't voice your values, but you have to do it differently.

So we do that. All of those things personalize it, but that's fairly safe. You are identifying strengths. You are just creating your profile, which is very consistent with organizations that do 360s and other kinds of assessments.

Then we get to the scripting. That's when we do what you called depersonalization. I call it potholders. We give them something hot to hold, but we give them potholders. The potholders are that we give them these cases, as I was describing earlier, where we have a protagonist who has decided what he or she thinks is right already. They don't have to own that. All they have to do is figure out how he or she could get it done.

They end up doing that in a group with each other and voicing out loud the scripts. Then we give them peer-coaching guidelines about how to hear what you came up with and then what you can say to make it better. They have instructions for doing that.

I always tell people there are two pieces to this. There is a cognitive piece and a behavioral or experiential piece. The cognitive piece is lots of different ways of framing an argument that might make it easier to find a way to respond to it. The behavioral or experiential piece is that you say it out loud in front of somebody you respect, in front of a peer who stands in as proxy for exactly the kind of person you would have to say it to in the workplace.

We are trying to balance the personal with the depersonalized, or potholders, in that way.

Some of those process issues may be what you end up voicing. You may be in an organization that has no process for dealing with these issues. So by default, they end up falling into a lot of traps, because nobody sees any option. Actually voicing the need for that kind of process and putting that initiative in place may be what you are speaking out about, or at least the first step of it.

What becomes a challenge is when the process takes the place of substance, which is another discussion.

We thought about all those things very carefully in an educational context. I'm not sure about corporate contexts. The corporations that have used this have done a number of things. They have shared the seven pillars, or the seven principles, because they think they are useful. They have done a lot with the scripting.

For example, Lockheed Martin has designed their whole program this year around Giving Voice to Values. What they did was, they identified nine different scenarios that engineers and managers at a firm like Lockheed Martin might encounter, and they created videos. Instead of being the usual thing where, "Your boss asks you to fudge numbers. What do you do?"—and then they have to figure out all the reasons, what's right and what the pressures are—instead of that, it's exactly a GVV. Your boss has asked you to fudge the numbers. You know you can't. How can you persuade him or her? What can you do?

These videos are in increments. If you work through that as an employee, you end up—I have screened one of them; they have done nine of them—you come away from it with two or three good lines and two or three good ideas about how you might approach this. It's very actionable. None of it is about what was right. It's about how you get the right thing done.

They have nine of these scenarios. They start these. They do the training with the CEO and then he trains his reports and they train their reports, and it goes on down the organization.

They have piloted it, and usually in ethics initiatives, "You are required to work through two of these scenarios," and they can pick. What they have found is that people are asking permission to work through more, because they are finding them interesting and useful. They are finding them actionable. They are not preachy. They are not, "I'm rehearsing what is right, even though I know I could never do it." They are actually trying to figure out how they could do it.

To me, that's a good translation. What I'm not sure about is exactly what you asked about: Is that some way to translate that personal commitment part into an organizational context and still have it be safe? I'm still working on that. If you have thoughts, I'd love it.

QUESTION: I don't work in a corporation now, but I was a middle manager in a corporation before. As a person that hired quite a few people, it seems to me that once you are in the corporation, a middle manager will hire according to the corporation's values. You are already brought into a certain value-oriented organization that you conform to once you are in. So I'm wondering if your program is geared at all towards people that are hiring.

MARY GENTILE: That's very interesting.

QUESTIONER: And if they are hiring on these types of values, then perhaps the organization can have a change from the ground up instead of top down. If you are having people coming in that are oriented towards these values, then perhaps the corporation will have a change in values, instead of trying to change the corporation once it has already started. The corporation will have a mission, it's hiring on certain values, and it's looking for people who are oriented towards who they are. But if you try to get the new people coming in that are focused on these types of values, perhaps that might help with changing the corporation as a whole.

MARY GENTILE: That's really interesting. I don't know how many of you have done job interviews where they make you go through a little case scenario. They say, "What if this happens? How would you deal with it?" And sometimes they are ethical dilemmas.

If you actually use the recruiting conversation as an opportunity to get them to work through how you could get the right thing done, that sends a very powerful signal.

That's a great idea.

QUESTIONER: I have hired and managed quite a few new people. It seems to me that if you set the idea of who they are and what they are going to do when they come in, it's a lot easier to handle than to have to change job descriptions or to change down the line. I have seen that if you have a very clear job description and what people are expected to do when they come in, then they are going to be very happy employees, because they have this really clear idea of what they need to do on a day-to-day basis to make their manager happy, to make themselves happy, and they are done.

Even if you were to bring those sorts of values coming in and the expectations that this is who we are as an ethical organization, and this is what we expect you to be able to say and to be able to do, then you can define that at the get-go and not change things later and say, "We thought you were going to do this." It's just an added idea.

MARY GENTILE: Thanks. That's really interesting. That's great.

Other thoughts?

QUESTION: I was curious about how you look at results from your course. It seems like your approach is driven by a thoughtful look at some data. It may be qualitative data. I'm wondering about how you go about declaring success on this one.

MARY GENTILE: Assessing impact is a great question. There are several ways that we do it. Obviously, the cheating way to do it is that it's being picked up so much. It's not really cheating. There is a certain market test. There is a certain logic to it that people like. But that's not enough.

How do we assess the impact? There are three levels that we are looking at for the proof of concept.

The first is that it is actually based on a lot of existing scholarship and research around what changes behaviors. So although the research that we have looked at was not specifically about GVV, it was, in fact, about what changes people's behavior. First of all, we know there already is empirical data that suggests that this is the approach to take to make this kind of impact. But that's still once removed.

The second level is anecdotal. It's still relatively new, but we hear from faculty, "We did the class, and then over the summer, I had a student call me up and say, 'I was in my job and this came up, and I remembered that class in GVV and we did this, and I was able to do this.'"

Even in my own personal experience, I can say that both my editors—my Harvard Business Review editor and my book editor from Yale Press—on different occasions, called me up and said, "You know what? I've been editing your piece, and I had a GVV moment." Then they proceeded to tell me a story of something happening in their organizations that was basically illegal or unethical, and they found a way to do something. So anecdotally we have these stories.

The third level is real systematic research on the impact. It's still relatively new, but there are some faculty who have been doing basically the simple kind of pre- and post-test, where you survey the students before the class and after the class, and see how their responses have changed. Those have been good in the sense of people being able to respond that they now actually feel like they have more tools, that they have more options, that they have more ideas about what they could do in these scenarios.

But then the higher level is to actually do some empirical research where you actually test the impact of the work. We have a number of faculty who are designing those kinds of research studies right now. The results aren't in yet. There are some faculty in Washington state who are accountants, who like this approach and have been using it in their accounting classes. As you may know, certified public accountants have to take continuing education courses, and some of those are on ethics. They are implementing this in their work with existing accountants and then they are doing some studies to see the impact on their behaviors.

Similarly, there is a professor at Yale who is a social psychologist who is doing some more lab kind of research, where he is creating a simulation and doing surveys online with people, and they are collecting data. He is in the process of doing that now.

We hope to have more data soon, but we answer the question at various levels.

There is another case, which is that you work for an organization, you don't go through a case with conflicting values personally, but it comes up in media that your organization is deeply involved in something illegal, something unethical, and you don't feel good about it, although in your personal tasks you have never faced that situation or that chance. Perhaps it's another department or other things you don't handle personally, so you are not personally involved. But you still feel very bad, and perhaps you want to give up, to resign.

How can you reframe that? First of all, I want to ask if you have ever seen people in that scenario.

I've been in that scenario. I think most of us have.

That's a very common scenario and it's a really important one. It's akin to what people often call bystander issues, where it's not really that you have been told to do something that you think is wrong, but your organization is doing that or you are aware of it.

Yes, that's very important. We have talked to people about that. Those usually tend to be the kinds of scenarios where it's not an intervention; it's a set of conversations. The people that we have talked to who have been engaged, who feel strongly about something like that, what they have started to do is talk to a number of other people, gather examples of what's happening in other industries. Those are the kinds of issues that require, as I was saying earlier, a systemic solution, because often they have to do with something that is common in an industry, and so they may need to create something that is more of a coalition for doing this.

Yes, we see that all the time and it's a very key area. All of the kinds of arguments that we have been talking about for, "No, I will not cheat and steal," also apply in those kinds of scenarios. You just have to frame the situation larger.

You will see when you read the articles I shared—I didn't go over all of this because I wasn't teaching a class—we talk about four of the most common rationalizations that we hear. They apply to your scenario, as well as to the smaller scenario. The four we most commonly hear are:

  • Materiality. It's not material. It's not that big a deal.
  • Responsibility. It may be wrong, but it's not my responsibility. It's someone else's.
  • Standard operating procedure. This is what everyone does. Everyone expects it.
  • The fourth one is locus of loyalty. Yes, it may be wrong, but if I act on it, I'm hurting my friend over here or my coworker or my customer. Who am I going to be loyal to?

Those are the four most commonly heard rationalizations for why you can't act on your values, and they all apply to the scenario you are describing. Then, as you will see in the Harvard Business Review article and the other piece, we talk about different ways of responding to those.

Yes, that's a really key issue. It's not off-topic at all. In fact, it's what we do talk about in some of our cases.

We have to wrap up. I appreciate your interest in listening to the stories. If any of you are interested in learning more or have other ideas—thank you very much; I've already made a note about what we might do—we are getting corporate interest, and they don't always understand what they are asking for. I want to think about it in a strategic way. So if any of you have ideas, please let me know. I have cards, if you want to be in touch.

If you want to learn more about the curriculum, it's You can download it all for free.

Thank you very much.

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