Change, Staying Informed, and Participation In A Democracy
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A Conversation With Mary Gentile, Author of The Book: Giving Voice To Values

At some point during your career, you will encounter a situation where the organization you work for is not doing the "right" thing -- something unethical, immoral, and/or illegal. You know what the "right" thing is but speaking up may be risky or unsafe. Would you speak up about what is right?

Your boss wants to cut corners at the expense of safety. Or, your coworker alters the financial report with fake numbers. Or, a small business owner signs work agreements with subcontractors he has no intention of paying when the invoices arrive. Or, the information technology team skips the implementataion of standard data-security methods. Knowing right from wrong is easy. Speaking your mind about it can be hard if you are feeling pressure from your boss, your coworkers, or your own career concerns.

If you worked at BP or Goldman Sachs, would you have stood up about what is right? If you worked at Heartland, TJX, Checkfree, Facebook, or HealthNet would you have spoken up about what is right about data security?

After making the decision to speak up, what does it take to get heard? How can we be more effective at speaking our mind, and building alliances with like-minded coworkers, so that pressures don't stop you from acting on our values?

Mary Gentile explores these issues in her new book. GIVING VOICE TO VALUES: Speaking Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (Yale University Press; $26; August 24, 2010; hardcover and Kindle). A Babson faculty member, consultant, and director of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum, Mary Gentile shows us not how to decide what’s right or wrong, but the much harder step of how to speak our minds and act on our values when we already know what’s right.

I discussed these issues recently with Mary. I have known her since the mid 1990's when we both worked at the Harvard Business School: she was an instructor and I performed business and economics research in the Research Services department at Baker Library.

I've Been Mugged: What prompted you to write the “Giving Voice to Values” book?
Mary Gentile: I have worked in business education for almost 25 years – ten years at Harvard Business School, fifteen-plus years of independent consulting to business schools globally, and now since 2009 I've been based at Babson College in Massachusetts.

During all that time, I became increasingly convinced that the approach taken most often to business values and ethics in business schools and in corporate training efforts was missing a critical piece. These efforts most often focused on building Awareness of ethical conflicts and on teaching models of ethical Analysis to help managers and employees to decide what the "right" thing to do might be in a particular situation. But there was a glaring absence when it came to teaching about values-driven Action: that is, what to say and do once we knew what we thought was ethical.

And it was this very gap that Giving Voice To Values (GVV) – the book and the curriculum it is based upon -- was designed to fill.

The GVV approach has been catching on quickly and widely. We currently have well over 100 pilot sites in business schools and organizations on six continents. The work has been or is about to be featured in the Harvard Business Review (twice); the Financial Times (twice); strategy+business, BizEd, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and many other publications. Now with the publication of the book, we are excited to see the audience grow further.

Mugged: What are the common traits of organizations that effectively give voice to values and facilitate employees raising unpopular messages?
Gentile: In our conversations with individuals who have voice their values and in our work in business education, we have seen that there is a fairly consistent set of organizational traits that can enable "voice." They are not big surprises: things like, a culture of openness where it's not only acceptable but valued when employees raise their concerns and questions and ideas; managers who listen; a clear statement of organizational mission or purpose, that is broader, bigger and deeper than simply making the quarterly numbers; the sharing of organizational "stories" that celebrate times when individuals expressed their values to good effect. Perhaps the most interesting one is the willingness of leaders to speak openly with their peers and reports about the process they went through to decide and act on their values, not in a bragging or self-celebratory fashion but as a sincere expression of their own learning.

Mugged: What are the common traits of employees and managers at these successful organizations?
Gentile: Well, as I said before, openness; a willingness to learn from each other; a regular appeal to the organization's wider mission as well as their own personal sense of professional purpose. And as we learn from GVV, folks who have thought in advance about the kinds of values conflicts that are predictable in their particular industries and functional areas, and who have anticipated and practiced "pre-scripting" themselves ,are more likely to be able to voice their values when it's necessary. They have, in effect, "normalized" the process of voicing values and have developed the muscle memory necessary to make voice their default position when such situations arise.

Mugged: What are the common traits or habits of organizations that do NOT give voice to values and employees are NOT able to raise unpopular messages?
Gentile: Just as sharing stories of times when managers have effectively voiced their values can help build a culture that enables such behaviors, stories of cutting corners or the celebration of cynicism can disable voice. Remember the prominent stock tickers at Enron which encouraged employees to focus, always and primarily, on the short term stock price. If you want your employees to focus on long term sustainable results achieved in a responsible fashion, then you need to focus on that.

Similarly organizations and managers who don't listen, who punish the messenger, are not likely to hear the messages that can save them for legal and ethical turmoil.

Mugged: Skeptical readers might say that ethics/values are irrelevant; that they don’t contribute directly to company profitability. Obviously you disagree. How do ethics and values relate to profitability and company growth?
Gentile: Well, there are plenty of stories – especially these days – about organizations that have or are paying a price for ethical infractions. Think about Goldman Sachs and the settlement it had to pay in the John Paulson scandal, or BP and the price it is paying for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

But the GVV approach is somewhat different. Too often, discussions of business ethics start from the position that we have to prove that "ethics pays." And as I said before, there are plenty of stories about times when managers and companies have paid a steep price for values transgressions. However, we all also know that folks sometimes get away with such violations.

The point of GVV is to suggest that we all know in our heart of hearts that sometimes ethics pays and sometimes being unethical can pay, at least for a while and at least in monetary terms. But nevertheless, we also know that many of us -– probably most of us -– would actually like to act in alignment with values like honesty and compassion and integrity, if we thought we could do so effectively. That is, we would be more likely to voice and enact our values if we felt more competent at it.

And that is what GVV is all about. I am not focusing on trying to convince someone to be ethical. Rather I'm trying to empower those of us who would already like to act on our values to be better at it. The focus is on "moral competence" more than "moral courage." The seven pillars of the GVV approach – Values, Choice, Normalization, Purpose, Self-Knowledge and Alignment, Voice and Reasons & Rationalizations – each yield a set of insights and tools for achieving this competence.

Mugged: Which sectors (e.g., public/government, private/corporations, nonprofits, academia, NGOs) does your book provide organizational examples about, and why?
Gentile: Most of the examples are from the private sector, although there are a few NGO examples. This is because the work was developed in the business education context. Nevertheless, the scenarios and the skills discussed are widely applicable. I increasingly receive queries from other fields – engineering, medicine, law, liberal arts, NGOs, etc.

Mugged: This blog discusses data breaches (e.g., when organizations fail to protect the sensitive personal data they archive of employees, customers, and former employees) and corporate responsibility (e.g., what those organizations and their executives do, or don’t do, after a breach). In your research, what examples have you seen about data breaches, corporate responsibility, and executive responses?
Many of the examples we have seen have to do with the reporting of financial data which entails similar issues of accuracy, honesty, and responsible handling of information. We also feature a case wherein a hardware producer encounters a potential privacy violation in the re-use of previously owned hard drives. We have another case that focuses on the honest reporting of market research on customer preferences. The pressures and anticipated consequences in all of these situations come down to the same kinds of issues: time pressures; cost pressures; fear of displeasing our bosses. What we have seen in our interviews is that those individuals who actually voice their values in such situations have spent at least as much time focusing on the potential pressures and consequences of failing to act: potential lawsuits; customer defection; actual loss or pain to customers; negative reputational effects, etc.

Mugged: What specific departments or functions (e.g.,, IT, human resources, marketing, finance & accounting, general management, etc.) within organizations does your book discuss, and why?
Gentile: The GVV approach is relevant to all functions because values conflicts arise in many areas but examples in the book and the curriculum include financial management, human resource management, supply chain management, external relations, strategy, internal auditing, marketing, sales, etc.

Mugged: For organizations that are good at giving voice to values, what specific documents or training do these organizations provide their employees?
Gentile: I believe that the more specific and organizationally customized the training can be; the more it involves leadership all throughout the organization (as opposed to being relegated to HR only) and the more it provides opportunities to share positive examples from within the firm and to practice actually scripting responses to common scenarios, the more effective it will be. This is the GVV approach.

Mugged: Many organizations either outsource or offshore outsource their back-office operations to other companies. How has this business practice affected the ability of companies to give voice to values?
Gentile: Well, of course, this practice can complicate the process for several reasons such as the lack of familiarity and comfort with cultural norms and the sheer distances that mean certain behaviors are just not that visible. In the end, however, we have found that these pressures are simply variations on the same kinds of challenges one faces within a domestic organization and the same types of skills and practices are required.

Mugged: When consumers apply for a job at a potential employer, what questions would you suggest they ask during the interview process to determine whether the potential employer is effective at giving voice to values for its employees?
Gentile: Well, you can learn a lot by asking for some stories/examples of leadership behaviors that the firm values highly: for example, you could ask "can you share some examples of things employees in this job (i.e., the one for which you are interviewing) have done that really impressed you? What would you regard as high performance and leadership in this job?" And you can ask "How open is the company and management to hearing from employees about new ideas or about concerns with current practices? Can you share some examples?"

Mugged: Are there any public documents consumers should read about an organization that indicate if that organization is good at giving voice to values?
Gentile: I would always do the usual due diligence, read the company's own preferred language about itself -– website, annual reports, press releases -– but recognize that these are examples of "public speak." So going further to look for interviews with senior management in the business press; business reporting on the firm; investor guidance; consumer complaints; and other public sources of commentary can give you a fuller picture. There is no substitute for talking to current employees, off the record, if you can swing that.

Mugged: We seem to be swamped with many new technologies… smartphones, notebook PCs, cloud computing, social networking sites, distance learning, and similar online services. Is any of this useful or necessary for an organization to effectively give voice to values?
Gentile: Each of these new technologies can be used for good or ill. Just as each of them provides potential opportunities for new ways to deceive or manipulate, they also provide new ways to share positive messages and to keep each other "honest." In the end, it all comes down to the individuals and both their intent as well as their mastery. For those of us who want to voice our values effectively, it is useful to develop as many possible methods of communication as possible. The GVV approach would focus on inviting examples and practice with using these methodologies positively.

Mugged: What do you see in the future for improving organization effectiveness at giving voice to values?
Gentile: I do believe that the more that companies and their leaders provide opportunities for employees to actually practice developing scripts and delivering them, out loud, in a peer coaching context, the more genuine and reliable their efforts at creating a values-driven organization will be. As I speak about the "Giving Voice To Values" approach in more contexts – to both business education as well as practitioner audiences –- increasingly I encounter interest in using this approach.


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i like to read your posts. thanks for this one.


I'm glad to read the conversation between you and her.

Vicki Collins

Thank you for conversation! I enjoy reading it!

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