How can you effectively stand up for your values under pressure?

Giving Voice to Values (GVV) is an innovative approach to values-driven leadership development, pioneered by Darden Professor Mary Gentile. Helping individuals recognize, clarify, speak and act on their values effectively in the face of conflict, GVV has fundamentally changed the way business ethics is discussed in academic and corporate settings globally — its curriculum has been piloted or presented in more than 1,200 sites worldwide.

The forthcoming book Giving Voice to Values: An Innovation and Impact Agenda, edited by Mary Gentile and Jerry Goodstein, includes observations from contributors whose expertise ranges from bioethics to philosophy to economics to women’s rights, with examples from the U.S., China, the Middle East, and from business, education, corporate settings, and the legal and health care professions. They explore the expansion of GVV in different contexts, with different audiences, and acting as a catalyst for organizational and societal change.

The below excerpts highlight a portion of Gentile’s journey and inspiration, in her own words.

What Is Giving Voice to Values?

A variety of experiences and insights from research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience and organizational studies led me to generate the action-focused approach of GVV. Instead of focusing primarily and exclusively on answering the question of “what is the right thing to do?” in any particular business situation, GVV focuses on the question “once I know what I believe is right, how can I get it done effectively?”

After all, many of us want to act in alignment with our values; it makes us happier.

The Need for a New Approach

When I talk about Giving Voice to Values with different audiences around the world —  educators, students, corporate managers, investment professionals, health care professionals, lawyers, the military, NGOs, professional associations and so on — I typically start my remarks by saying that several decades ago I suffered what I call a “crisis of faith.”

I was working with leading schools and educators to integrate ethics into the graduate business curriculum, and I felt that the work we were doing was at best futile and at worst hypocritical.

The most powerful doubts grew out of my experiences in conversation with students and practitioners. It seemed that we would typically pose ethical challenges as “dilemmas” for which there seemed to be no good options: Either we speak out, often with little positive impact and to the detriment of our own careers, or we remain quiet, put our heads down and just do as we’re told. And if we chose the latter option, it seemed that the ethics course simply meant that we were more aware of our own moral failing in doing so. It would seem that the students or practitioners in the discussion who wanted to behave ethically would be left with the choice to either find a way to defend what they sensed was wrong; to act with the conviction that they were doomed to fail and pay a price; or to accept that ethics were a luxury they could not afford: that is, rationalization, martyrdom or surrender to cynicism.

One of GVV’s guiding principles: We try to act where and how we can, knowing that perfection may not be possible but that the effort is still important and that it can be part of staying on a journey of continuous improvement.

The Power of Stories

My first experience at Harvard Business School was auditing a course. I noticed that the focus of case study discussions seemed to be to gather a large amount of information and data and to bring it all down to a single pointed solution or plan of action.

This was utterly contrary to my experience as a student of literature and film, in which the point was rather to take a single line of text or a particular sequence of images and open them up to as many interpretations and meanings as conceivable.

I think it is this training that allowed me to see that GVV is all about looking at the same set of facts and influences as another but seeing more options, more choices of how one might respond and act. And this background also helped me recognize and build upon the power of stories — stories we tell others to influence and persuade them and stories we tell ourselves in order to help us feel that a values-driven course of action can be possible.

The Power of Reframing the Conversation

Yet another significant contributor to the development of GVV was the work I did while at HBS to develop its first course on managing diversity. I invited students to examine how the ways that they framed a position contributed to and could determine their sense of what was possible.

I drew a vertical line down the center of the blackboard and asked the students to “pretend” for a moment that they were all vehement opponents of affirmative action: What values would they base their opposition upon? Because they were freed from having to “own” the position, it became easier for them to suggest a list of values, and I wrote them down on one side of the line: fairness, meritocracy, justice, etc. Then I asked them to all “pretend” that they were dedicated supporters of affirmative action: What values would they base their support upon? And I wrote that list on the other side of the line … and the list was the same.

We are now engaged in a discussion of implementation, rather than one based on the moral deficiency of one group or the other. By finding this short list of high-level but shared values, we can at least begin to talk about what would work.

Now we all know that that the emotions, fears, resentments and historical realities that underlie our nation’s history of racial injustices is not only an implementation problem. But the point here is that we found a way for the students to engage in a conversation and a collaborative problem-solving process that didn’t exclude some of them at the outset due to judgment by others in the room.

From this experience, I learned about the power of reframing a conversation; the power of finding common ground, even if it is limited and very high level; and the usefulness of moving to an action-focused conversation about what might be possible: all components of the GVV pedagogical approach.

Ideas Belong to Everyone

I found the core ideas behind GVV: asking a new question (that is, rather than “what is the right thing to do?” asking “how do we get the right thing done?”) and building a “moral muscle memory” (that is, a habit through pre-scripting, action planning, rehearsal and peer coaching).

I did not want to own GVV; GVV is an idea, and ideas belong to everyone. I believed that ideas are the way to make change. It was, after all, one of those convergences of the private and public good. I wanted GVV to be in the world, hopefully inspiring others to design their own educational and training efforts, and their own personal choices, as informed by it.

As I look ahead, my profound hope is that the cadre of GVV ambassadors around the world will continue to grow; to take inspiration and heart from the basic reframe at the heart of GVV; and that they will take this work much further than I could ever imagine or attempt. I encourage them to look for those convergences of private and public good, and to focus on the goal even when the path seems counterintuitive.

The preceding is drawn from Giving Voice to Values: An Innovation and Impact Agenda (Routledge), edited by Jerry Goodstein and Mary Gentile.

Learn More About Values-Driven Leadership in Mary Gentile's Book
Giving Voice to Values: An Innovation and Impact Agenda