Five Questions about “Giving Voice to Values” – Special Interview with Mary C. Gentile, PhD, Director, Giving Voice to Values, and Senior Research Scholar, Babson College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, United States of America – March 4, 2013

On the first Monday of each month Emerging Markets ESG publishes a special interview with an academic, expert or practitioner about a specific topic with relevance to environmental, social and/or governance (ESG) issues.

This month’s interview, the 12th in the special interview series, is about “Giving Voice to Values” and is with Mary C. Gentile, Director, Giving Voice to Values, and Senior Research Scholar, Babson College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, United States of America.

Giving Voice to Values” (GVV) is a business curriculum launched by Aspen Institute and Yale School of Management, now based and supported at Babson College. “Giving Voice to Values” is a pioneering approach to values-driven leadership that has been featured in BizEd, Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly, Stanford Social Innovation Review and other publicationsand piloted in over 385 business schools and organizations globally. The book Giving Voice To Values: How To Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right is published by Yale University Press.  (For details about the book, please click here.)    Mary C. Gentile, PhD,is Director of “Giving Voice to Values” and Senior Research Scholar at Babson College.  She is also a Senior Advisor to the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program and an independent consultant.  Previously, Gentile was a faculty member and manager of case research at Harvard Business School.  While at Harvard Business School (1985-95), Gentile was one of the principal architects of the innovative educational program, Leadership, Ethics and Corporate Responsibility. Gentile co-authored Can Ethics Be Taught? Perspectives, Challenges, and Approaches at Harvard Business School (with Thomas R. Piper and Sharon Parks, Harvard Business School Press, 1993, translated into Hungarian and Japanese). Other publications include Differences That Work: Organizational Excellence through Diversity; Managing Diversity: Making Differences WorkManagerial Excellence Through Diversity: Text and Cases, as well as numerous articles, cases, and book reviews in publications such as Academy of Management Learning and Education, BizEd, CFO, Harvard Business Review, The Journal of Human Values, Risk Management, Stanford Social Innovation Review and Strategy+Business.   Gentile served as Content Expert for the award-winning interactive CD-ROM, Managing Across Differences (Harvard Business School Publishing 1996).  Gentile holds a bachelor’s degree from The College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA) and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Emerging Markets ESG:  What is “Giving Voice to Values”?

GentileMaryMary C. Gentile:  “Giving Voice To Values” (GVV) is a ground-breaking new approach to preparing business managers and leaders for values-driven decision making. Drawing on both the actual experience of business practitioners as well as cutting edge research, GVV fills a long-standing and critical gap in our understanding of how to enable ethical practice.

Rather than a focus on ethical analysis, GVV focuses on ethical implementation and asks the question: “What if I were going to act on my values? What would I say and do? How could I be most effective?”  GVV identifies the many ways that individuals can – and do – voice their values in the workplace and provides opportunities to build the muscles necessary to do so.

GVV is not about persuading people to be more ethical. Rather GVV starts from the premise that most of us already want to act on our values, but that we also want to feel that we have a reasonable chance of doing so effectively and successfully. This curriculum is about raising those odds.

Distinctive features of the GVV business curriculum include:

  • A focus on HOW a manager raises values-based issues in an effective manner—what he/she needs to do to be heard and how to correct an existing course of action when necessary;
  • POSITIVE EXAMPLES of times when people have found ways to voice and thereby implement their values in the workplace;
  • The importance of self-assessment and a FOCUS ON INDIVIDUAL STRENGTHS  when looking for a way to align one’s individual sense of purpose and that of the organization;
  • Opportunities to construct and PRACTICE responses to frequently heard reasons and rationales for not acting on one’s values;
  • Practice in providing PEER FEEDBACK AND COACHING.

Emerging Markets ESG:  Why was development of a new curriculum necessary?  Prior to the development of the curriculum, didn’t faculty and students voice their values?

Mary C. Gentile:  Despite four decades of good faith effort to teach Ethics in business schools, readers of the business press are still greeted on a regular basis with headlines about egregious excess and scandal. It becomes reasonable to ask why these efforts have not been working.

Business faculty in ethics courses spend a lot of time teaching theories of ethical reasoning and analyzing those big, thorny dilemmas — triggering what one professor called “ethics fatigue.” Some students find such approaches intellectually engaging; others find them tedious and irrelevant. Either way, sometimes all they learn is how to frame the case to justify virtually any position, no matter how cynical or self-serving.  Utilitarianism, after all, is tailor made for a free market economy.

As for those “ethical dilemmas,” too often they are couched as choices that only a chief executive could love — because only a CEO would confront them. The average 30 year old MBA graduate is not likely to decide whether to run that pipeline across the pristine wilderness or whether to close the company’s manufacturing plant.

It’s not that ethical theory and high-level strategic dilemmas are not important; unquestionably they are. But they don’t help future managers and leaders figure out what to do the next — when a boss wants to alter the financial report, or their sales team applies pressure to misrepresent the capabilities of their product, or they witness discrimination against a peer — and these are the experiences that will shape their ability to take on the strategic, thorny ethical dilemmas in time.

The near term skill set revolves around what to say, to whom and how to say it when a the manager knows what he or she thinks is right when an ethical breech occurs — but doesn’t feel confident about how to act on his or her convictions.  This overlooked but consequential skill set is the first step in building the ethical muscle.  This is the purpose of the “Giving Voice to Values” program.

Emerging Markets ESG:  Does “Giving Voice to Values” require a paradigm shift?

Mary C. Gentile:  Yes, I believe it does, but this is, I think, a welcome shift: one that appeals intuitively to most of us. Rather than focusing on ethics and values as if they are an entirely intellectual challenge, GVV invites us to think about the pragmatics of voicing and enacting our values. It invites us to be honest with ourselves; to acknowledge that we often know what we believe is right but are unable to figure out how to act on that conviction effectively and hopefully, without putting ourselves at a systematic disadvantage.

And it invites us to “normalize” the practice of ethics, recognizing that values conflicts are not the exception but rather a normal part of everyday business – of everyday life, and that we have a lot of skills that we use in almost any other challenging situation. But somehow, we disable ourselves when it comes to ethics. We think it is primarily and only about “moral courage” when often it is more appropriately or at least, also, about “moral competence.”

GVV is about practicing that competence so that it can become a default response. The curriculum and pedagogy is based upon increasing stores of research that suggest that one of the most effective ways of changing behavior is through “rehearsal.”

Emerging Markets ESG:  Please briefly describe the curriculum.

Mary C. Gentile:  The GVV curriculum and pedagogy consists of exercises, background readings and importantly, GVV-style case scenarios. The cases themselves are unique in several respects and differ from the traditional, longer dilemma-based business case study. Typically these cases will be brief (usually no more than 1-3 pages) anecdotes and story examples, sometimes divided into (A) and (B) – or problem statement and solution – scenarios.

GVV cases present a challenge of implementation rather than of decision-making: that is, as Carolyn Woo, former Dean of the Notre Dame Business School described our approach, they are “post-decision-making.” The case examples are told from the point of view of the protagonist who knows what he or she thinks is the “right” thing to do, but is struggling with how to do it: e.g., what to say; to whom; when and in what context; with what kinds of pre and post activity.

The cases are also distinctive in that, as often as possible, they are based upon experiences of individuals who have, in fact, found a way to voice and act on their values. They are not presented as “heroes or heroines.” In fact, sometimes their approaches can certainly be improved upon. However, they illustrate doable real world behaviors by men and women with whom readers can identify. In this way, students who read and discuss a number of GVV cases begin to gather a repertoire of different approaches, strategies and inspiration which they can add to their own personal toolkits.

Sometimes, of course, a GVV case features someone who did not necessarily find an effective way to enact their values. In such cases, the teaching task is to “re-script” and re-design their action plan, such that they may have a better chance of success.

Available curricular materials (Free to educators) include hundreds of pages of readings, short cases, exercises, teaching plans and annotated bibliographies. Customized curriculum or peer coaching programs can be developed for business schools or companies.

The GVV curriculum has been used successfully in MBA, executive education and undergraduate settings, and is now being piloted in other settings such as schools of public management, engineering, law, medicine/nursing, liberal arts, and so on. Increasingly major corporations and other organizations are also piloting the approach. Currently there are over 385 institutions globally that have piloted, or plan to pilot, the materials.

Emerging Markets ESG:  Giving Voice to Values is piloted in over 385 business schools and organizations globally.  Could you please tell us something about its application in emerging markets?

Mary C. Gentile:  The GVV curriculum/pedagogy has been used on all seven continents, including in emerging market contexts. For example, we have developed a network of faculty in Indian business schools who are not only using the approach but who have collaborated with us to develop India-specific GVV case examples. Similarly we have partnered with faculty in China for the same purpose.

An interesting example is a new written case (disguised of course) titled “Not An Option Even To Consider”which shares the story of the country manager for a multi-national pharmaceutical firm in an emerging market nation, and shares his challenges with pressures around corruption; difficult government relationships; competitor’s counterfeit products; and so on. Another example is a video presentation developed in partnership with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs which features an Indian entrepreneur who successfully turns around a financially and ethically challenges mid-sized consumer products company.

I have found that there is real appetite for the GVV approach in emerging market contexts because rather than preaching about the “right thing” to do, they begin with a respectful stance that most managers and leaders would like to behave ethically and responsibly but that they need assistance in developing and rehearsing tactics and strategies that will be effective in their unique contexts. GVV is all about just such a pragmatic approach.