In the face of COVID-19, we now are often facing situations and struggles for which we feel unprepared, and many of these circumstances may test our deepest values, our sense of who we think we are or most want to be. Since we wrote this piece, the brutal killing of George Floyd and the subsequent expressions of impassioned voice around racial injustice and police violence have triggered yet another moment when this struggle to enact our values effectively is salient. Although the examples below revolve around the pandemic, I envision a future discussion focused on effective voice and action around the quest for a just, humane and unified nation.

 I have spent much of my career developing a pedagogical approach to business ethics and values-driven leadership development that helps prepare individuals to not only now what the right thing to do in a particular situation may be, but to be prepared to act on that knowledge — confidently, skillfully, effectively.

That pedagogy is called Giving Voice to Values (GVV).  Drawing on actual experience and scholarship, GVV fills a longstanding critical gap in the development of values-centered leaders. 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 pedagogy and curriculum are about raising those odds. Rather than a focus on ethical analysis, the Giving Voice to Values curriculum 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 is now based at UVA Darden School of Business but it has been shared and piloted all over the world, in many contexts — business schools, businesses, NGOs, the military, health care, law, engineering, the police, etc. — and I have begun to think about how this approach that involves pre-scripting, action planning, actual rehearsal and peer coaching might be helpful in our current pandemic situation. A colleague and friend, Jeff Hittner, who performs leadership-development trainings in New York City recently shared this example, and I am pleased to share it here.

Jeff Hittner: GVV Addressing Unfortunate Realities

I am the founder of Project X, a learning and development consulting company that builds and facilitates career discovery, leadership, and startup programs and workshops around the globe. I’ve been using Giving Voice to Values to train high-potential leaders both digitally and in-person. As March approached, I designed two specific COVID-19 scenarios, based on unfortunate realities in NYC.

Two COVID-19 Scenarios

In the first, an elderly passenger gets sick on a flight into NYC before the lockdown begins, passing out and vomiting. A couple nearby is grazed by some of the fluid and becomes outraged. Their outspoken agitation make it difficult for the crew to ensure the elderly woman is alright and to keep all the other passengers calm.

In the second scenario, an Asian American coughs on the subway. A teenager begins to curse at this person and blames him for bringing coronavirus to the U.S. The teenager screams for the Asian American to get off the train and threatens that whenever the Asian American gets off, he will also get off to follow him.

In both scenarios, the action plans and scripts of my participants varied widely.

Personal Safety and Moral Decision-Making

The high-potential leaders I was working with in Washington, D.C., easily identified the inappropriate actions but had difficulty separating their personal fears in scripting solutions. One group, which included a doctor, focused on the majority of the plane passengers, rather than the unruly couple. They wanted to explain to passengers that these were not COVID-19 symptoms. Another group tried to focus on speaking to the unruly couple and offering to swap seats, also believing they were not at risk, so preferring to support the sick elderly woman by removing the couple that was making the situation worse for her.

The subway scenario had several groups calling for the police once the subway came to a stop. One group tried rationalizing with the teenager that the Asian American had coughed into his sleeve and only coughed for a moment. In the actual situation this scenario was based upon, several passengers found a creative solution, choosing to get up and sit next to the Asian American, starting a conversation with him and promising, very loudly, to get off the subway with him as a group at the next stop.

These scenarios reinforce a critical and far-too-common values challenge in this pandemic: the interconnectedness of personal safety and moral decision-making. When our fight or flight response is triggered, our values-based decision-making is at greater risk. As a result, the need for scripting and rehearsing is paramount. Both are core elements of the GVV process.

Expand Empathy

My hope is that these stories expand people’s empathy to all actors caught up in morally challenging situations. The GVV approach enables participants to zoom out and see that what is at risk for all and that different approaches may be necessary for each actor. Several leaders grappling with these scenarios have recognized they cannot solve them alone, and so their proposed action plans involved joint efforts. With so many competing fears, one values-based leader can’t tend to all actors. My hope is that many of our participants see the need for collaboration.

Living in New York City with a 3-year-old and a newborn, these scenarios are only becoming more real and complex as we struggle with the realities of safety and empathy in this pandemic.

I plan to create additional GVV case studies related to the treatment of frontline supermarket workers, neighbors that are medical first responders, and so on. These GVV scenarios will form the basis for virtual trainings going forward, as part of a broader series of workshops on crisis leadership.

Mary Gentile: Remaining Our Best Selves in a Pandemic

I was excited and grateful to learn about Jeff’s innovative application of the Giving Voice to Values methodology, described above. One of the most rewarding aspects of the journey I have been on to share the GVV approach to values-driven leadership development has been witnessing the wide and varied applications that users and educators have found. I recall the Manager in the Nigerian division of a multi-national corporation who used GVV to raise a critical local conflict with the corporate headquarters in the U.K.; or the corporate compliance officer in Abu Dhabi who told me he used the approach in a challenging relationship with his father; or the tenured professor who used it in her exchanges with her teenage son; or the medical school professor who used it in his teaching; or the leadership scholars at the U.S. Air Force Academy who applied GVV in their training of new cadets; and so on.

As we all deal with the current pandemic, the struggle is to remain our best selves who we most want to be even in the face of unanticipated challenges. I believe that the action-oriented focus of GVV can help prepare us all to remain true to the values we already hold most dear in our lives, rather than succumb to the fear or anger or denial that can only make the situation worse

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