Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Mary Gentile Background

The Background Story

I spent most of my professional career in business schools. I was at Harvard for 10 years. Then I consulted for 15 years independently. I was always working with ethics, leadership, values, etc.

About the turn of the century, I had a crisis of faith. I was wondering whether teaching ethics in a business school is unethical. Typically, when people want to teach about business ethics in a business school, they will pick out a really thorny ethical dilemma as a case. The students learn that it is much more complicated than they thought. This is all a good thing. But in the classroom, usually, the most articulate and persuasive person gets the attention. The good side is that people have a stimulating intellectual experience. At worst, people walk out discouraged.

The second thing that led to the crisis of faith were the periodic scandals. Every few years, these things would happen. We would have a spate of articles in the newspaper asking, “What are they teaching in business school?” Donors and others would come forward and say, “you need to create a course.”

The Center for Ethics in California wanted to do a debate on business ethics. People on one side of the debate would say, after 25 years, we’ve made a lot of progress; and people on the other side would say there has been no progress. They had problems finding people who would argue the first side of the debate.

I began to think we were really just checking the boxes.

The Columbia Phase

Life is short. I wanted to do something meaningful. Columbia wanted me to work on social and environmental stuff to put in the curriculum. There were some people working on ethics and they asked me to take a look at it.

They asked incoming students to answer one question: Tell us about a time in your work experience when you were asked to do something you thought was unethical. I read over a thousand essays over several years. This is one of the pieces that triggered the developed GVV.

When you think about the kind of people that go to Columbia, many had been in the workplace for some time. Almost no one could not relate a story of having been asked to violate their values.

There were a lot of people from industries heavily represented in New York. We heard many stories about people who were asked to inflate or deflate their billable hours. There were people who were told to alter or replace the benchmarks they used to evaluate the attractiveness of a particular financial transaction. Or people were encouraged to puff up or inflate the capabilities of a particular product. Again, in order to maximize revenue. People across borders were asked to take or give a bribe.

The scenarios got repetitious very quickly. But the responses didn’t, which we grouped in the following buckets:

  1. I just did what they told me to do.
  2. I was bothered by it and didn’t think I could do it; so I tried to get out of the situation by requesting a transfer or using another avoidance strategy. A few of these just quit their jobs.
  3. Some tried to do something about it. Of these, some tried and failed. Others tried and succeeded.

So we started looking for indicators of what people did that was successful.

Why Do People Give Voice to Values?

It was not a matter of good and bad people. It didn’t seem that one group was more politically savvy or resourceful than others. In the end, the common factor among those who spoke up was that they had discussed it with someone else—a spouse or friend or acquaintance.

Then I remembered the research I had seen earlier about moral courage and altruism. These researchers had decided to do in-depth interviews of people who had acted with great courage on behalf of someone else. So they interviewed rescuers during WWII.

One of the things they found resonated with me. The people who were able to act courageously all reported that in an earlier point in their lives, in which they had had the experience of rehearsing out loud what would you do if . . .

There seemed to be this kind of experience that operated at both the cognitive level and also at the experiential level. They were scripting the words they would express. At the behavioral level, they were rehearsing what they would actually do.

We started to look at the research and then to interview business people. We did a couple of things. With practitioners, we asked for examples. With the researchers, we asked about voicing things.

A lot of research was saying, if you want to change behavior, act first instead of trying to think your way into it. There was research about habit formation, neurological research, kinesthetics, and more.

Moral Muscle Memory

When I was at Harvard Business School, I decided to take a self-defense class. Model mugging. they had a slightly different approach. Instead of teaching the standard moves alone, they had this padded mugger that you actually attacked. Physical state muscle memory.

That’s what we’re talking about here: a kind of moral muscle memory.

Rehearsal is important. It is practice in changing behavior.

Awareness and Analysis are Necessary, But Not Sufficient

In a business school classroom the usual way of showing you are smart is by arguing a contrarian position. In business ethics courses, they would say, we’re trying to teach two things: Awareness and analysis. This goal is undoubtedly important. Our ideas and shared consensus about moral values are evolving as we’re sitting here.

Necessary as it is, I concluded that it is not sufficient. When you look at the kind of stories that show up in the newspaper, those are not complicated, gray-area problems. Just because you are aware, is not sufficient.

On the analysis side, we wanted to teach ways to think through an ethical challenge rigorously. The way we would do that would be to borrow the models from philosophy. We taught those models from philosophy and apply them to business problems.

This is a good thing. Clear thinking is a good thing. But it is not sufficient.

I did a lot of interviews. One guy was a CEO of a successful products firm. This guy was concerned about both values and business education. He said, “When I hire someone, that’s a big hire.” He had recently had a young man who had just finished his MBA.

“Did you take a business ethics class?” he asked.

“Yes, it was required.”

“What did you learn?”

“I learned to use one of the three different models of ethics to justify what you want to do.”

By design, these models of ethics are supposed to conflict. These are ways to make you think clearly. They don’t give you the answer.

Putting Ethics into Action

I said, we need to ask the question about action. We need to ask, once you know what’s right, how do you get it done? As a junior person, as a middle-level manger, or as a senior leader.

Maybe we need to give people a way to practice this in the classroom.

The irony about some of the hero cases (e.g., Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol murders) is that people would want to poke holes in those stories. Not because we are cynical, but because we don’t want to be duped.

The other negative thing that would happen was, if a student was truly impressed, they were presented as heroes. Actions that were well beyond the mere mortal, taken at great risk. A small voice would suggest, I’m not sure I really want to do that.

We decided we want to look at practical examples, but we wanted them to be at the day-to-day level.

We decided we needed to create a different teaching technology. The traditional way was to use a 15-20 page case. Great way to teach analysis. Not so good at teaching action.

The GVV Approach

GVV cases are very short. They feature people at all levels or an organization. In every case, the decision of what they should do has already been made. We don’t wrestle with that aspect. Rather, the question at the end is, “What can I do to make this happen?” Can I do this one on one or do I need others etc.? Very practical scripting.

We have a process that students go through. They peer coach each other.  For the sake of  a GVV exercise, it’s not a forced debate. We’re all invited to come up with the best strategy together.

We created 100’s of pages of these kind of cases. We drew on the Judgment and Decision-Making research.

This was for teachers who are not philosophers. We put it online and reached out to other faculty and asked them to try it.

People started using it and we started getting feedback. As faculty and students started using it, they started sharing their work. Eventually, the book came out.

Then we started getting other expressions of interest from corporate trainers, for example. They started creating scenarios where someone had already stepped over the line and asked what could have been done differently. They got good responses. People were saying they actually took some stuff away that they could use. Employees asked to do more.

Some saw that this as not just ethics training. It’s really leadership training.

When I started this, I thought it was about speaking negatively, that is, saying no. But you can use the same habits and skills to voice your values positively.

Promotion of the Program

At this point, I’m in 2-3 places a week. I’m starting to ask my audiences for advice. Want to figure out how to grow it. We’re trying to develop an eLearning module. Our first client is a professional corporation that works with business people. We’re looking for other ways to expand this. We’re starting to partner with more organizations.

They are creating a career program on how you talk about your values in your career development. Carnegie Foundation. They tend to bring in executives for lunch-time workshops. Now they want to frame them as GVV scenarios. An executive will tell a story, and the people at the workshop will share how to get it done. (It’s available on iTunes for free.)

So, now I want you to chip in with your ideas. How do we take this further?

Questions and comments:

Question: You talked about ethical conflicts your students face. What are the odds that . . .. How can we expand the values of companies and business people to put ethical values above profit in terms of decision making? From the top down. How optimistic are you about that?

Response: It’s a good question. I’m not all that optimistic about that. I started to realize that I was asking the question much the same way you did. And I decided I needed to ask the question in a different way. Shift who you think you need to influence. We found when we interviewed people that junior people would say they didn’t have any power or legitimate authority. I don’t have any reputational capital. When I get to be CEO, I can make a difference. Then we would interview CEO’s, who would say they wanted to act on their values. It’s pretty risky for me to do that since I’m responsible for so many people.

But nevertheless, we found people at every level who found ways to voice their values. The point is that you are part of that ongoing conversation.

This isn’t easy. And it isn’t even always possible. But it’s important, and you can get better at it. We’re going to give you practice so that it comes more naturally.

We changed who we were talking to. When I first started, I was talking to senior people. We identified two groups at the opposite end of the bell curve: People who would always act on their material self-interest regardless of the cost to others or my values. These people might sacrifice their grandmothers to pull off a leveraged buyout. At the other end were people who were idealistic.

We targeted the rest of the people. I don’t think I can change the opportunists. I’m not so worried about the idealists, except I wish they were more skillful. But we can help those in the middle to be who they already want to be. I want to empower the people in the middle.

When I interviewed people, I would often hear, “I didn’t have a choice.” We’re trying to help them see that they sometimes have a choice. I want the pragmatists to get skillful. If they were more skillful, the opportunistic thing to do would be to go along with them.

Question: Much of the magic of what you do is to help people see how to get the right thing done. Two of the issues we face at the college are abuse of alcohol and cheating. They are stubbornly at a level we consider too high. Are there examples of GVV applied to that kind of problem?

Response: One of the things that comes up a lot is whether I could use this in raising my kids. I was visiting at the Air Force Academy. One of the colonels there told me he had started using it raising his daughters.

About the cheating question. Rob Philips heard me speaking at Brigham Young and wrote an email about 6 months later. He created several cheating scenarios. The students worked in teams to come up with an action plan. What could I say and not feel too self-conscious about it? Then they videoed this and posted the videos on a closed YouTube site. Then you get to work through what you did but also what others came up with.

A professor in Ghana was using GVV and wrote about a leadership experience for freshmen. They created a 5-week leadership experience for the freshmen and then put up some videos that they posted.

They’ve been using that now for about three years.

Question: I’m a philosopher. Where there is a mistake made is to take classes in philosophical ethics as a substitute for practical training. It’s really tricky. I’m not telling you what to think. I’m trying to help you learn to think well.

In talking about scripts, there is a sense in which you are training ethical soldiers. So I’m kind of worried about that. And skeptical.

Response: It’s a good point. We have three things we talk about at GVV. The second one I just talked about when I talked about who we thought we were teaching. The first one concerns the gray-area issues. Reasonable people of good will can disagree. We choose issues where most people agree that there is no gray area. We’re trying to shift the ability to speak up with respect to those issues. We say right up front: In this setting most people will agree about the question of right and wrong.

We have a list of questions in a table. We find that when people go through that template, if there is an ethical issue, it will emerge.

I always say that this is not to replace awareness and analysis.  I’m not as worried about creating ethical soldiers.

Question:  Teaching people how to take action seems to be a great first step. Is there any part of this about teaching people to hear people who are voicing their values.

Response: If I had the time, that would be my next book. I think it is essential to be able to hear those who are speaking up. Lockheed Martin is an example. Creating a culture of GVV. The Lockheed Martin people use that approach when they teach senior people.

Question: Another way of putting this is that the action component is making people better analysts. People are much better reasoners when we don’t know who the argument is directed at.

Response: One of the articles that interests me is Jonathan Haidt’s article about the emotional tail wagging the rational dog. Our process gets people to practice before the accountability problem kicks in. We don’t do role plays in adversarial settings.

We have a set of readings that share the JDM research. We tell people that this doesn’t make you bias proof. If I know about these biases and can name the bias, then I can frame a response that uses that bias explicitly.

Question: How about people who have not yet been in the workplace? Would this be beneficial for them?

Response: The business school classroom is hopefully good for getting experience before you enter the workplace. We’re getting feedback from people who use GVV in jobs after B-School.

We never envisioned GVV as a course or even as something to put in business ethics classes. We wanted to design a curriculum that could reasonably be integrated into other courses. The holy grail was to have ethics across the curriculum We did not want to require faculty to pretend they were philosophers when they weren’t.

Hopefully, this will be taught throughout the whole curriculum.

Yes, it would be great if this continues throughout life.

Comment: You said that you were trying to find meaning in your life. We like to think that’s what a liberal arts education is about.

Response: Yes. I don’t think I would have thought of GVV if I hadn’t had a liberal arts education.

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