| By: By Mary C. Gentile

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The typical business ethics discussion—in the classroom, the corporate training program, or in the office—is too often a kind of school for scandal. In the classroom, managers review case studies or in the field they discuss actual situations, and then they spend all their time outlining the many reasons why being ethical is not so easy, or not so clear after all.


Often we hear, “When I’m CEO I can take action on this kind of decision, but as a middle manager, I have neither the power nor the influence to do so.” On the other hand, when managers put themselves in the place of the CEO, they say: “Well, if I were lower in the organization, I might be able to take this kind of personal risk and stand up against this behavior. But I have the jobs and lives of thousands of employees and investors depending on me. I can’t afford the luxury of having values.” Sounds like Chuck Prince in July 2007, not long before he was deposed as the head of Citigroup, when he said, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

It’s not that ethical theory and high-level strategic dilemmas are not important; they are. But they don’t help future managers and leaders figure out what to do 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. These are the experiences that will shape their ability to take on the big, strategic, thorny ethical dilemmas in due time.

The near-term skills needed to deal with these kinds of challenges involve knowing what to say, to whom, and how to say it when a manager knows what’s right in a particular situation—but doesn’t feel confident about how to act on his or her convictions. This overlooked but consequential skill is the first step in building the ethical muscle.

The main idea behind the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) approach to values-driven leadership development is the observation that a focus on building awareness—on teaching employees to recognize and analyze ethical issues in a particular situation—is insufficient. What is also needed is the preparation for effective, values-driven action, and precious little time is spent on that in management education or in corporate training. Action means developing the “scripts” and implementation plans for responding to the commonly heard reasons and rationalizations for questionable practices, and actually practicing the delivery of those scripts.

GVV is about this neglected area of scripts, action plans, and practice: building the skills, the confidence, the moral muscle, and, frankly, the habit of voicing our values. It begins with the assumption that most of us want to bring our whole selves to work—skills, ambitions, and values. Yet, we know from experience and research that most of us will encounter values conflicts in our careers, when the way we want to live and the things we want to accomplish seem in conflict with the expectations of our clients, our peers, our bosses, or our organizations. That is why this practice based approach is essential.*

The conviction behind GVV—one that is supported by both qualitative research as well as psychology and cognitive neuroscience studies—is that, simply stated, practice makes perfect. Or, at least, practice makes our voice and action more likely. After all, despite unprecedented complexity in financial products such as credit default swaps, the reasons we give for why we do what we do are pretty familiar: “I didn’t think we’d get caught ... I didn’t know how to say no ... Everyone else was doing it ...,” and so on. If we get comfortable responding to those arguments, in fresh, persuasive, nondefensive ways, just think what might happen.

Most important, the Giving Voice to Values approach to values conflicts provides individual managers and business leaders with the opportunity to work together to craft “scripts” for responding to these rationalizations. This allows them to begin to see such positions as coming from someplace other than one of self-righteousness—something few of us can truly claim, and a stance that rarely wins followers. Instead they start from a place of competence and conviction.

A “To-do List” For Learning How to Act on Your Values Effectively


Know and appeal to a short list of widely shared values: e.g., honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion. In other words, don’t assume too little—or too much—commonality with the viewpoints of others.


Believe you have a choice about voicing values by examining your own track record. Know what has enabled and disabled you in the past, so you can work with and around these factors. And recognize, respect, and appeal to the capacity for choice in others.


Expect values conflicts so that you approach them calmly and competently. Over-reaction can limit your choices unnecessarily.


Define your personal and professional purpose explicitly and broadly before conflicts arise. What is the impact you most want to have? Similarly, appeal to a sense of purpose in others.

Self-Knowledge, Self-Image, and Alignment

Generate a “self-story” about voicing and acting on your values that is consistent with who you are and that builds on your strengths. There are many ways to align your unique strengths and style with your values. If you view yourself as a pragmatist, for example, find a way to view voicing your values as pragmatic.


Practice voicing your values in front of respected peers, using the style of expression with which you are most skillful and which is most appropriate to the situation, and inviting coaching and feedback. You are more likely to say those words that you have pre-scripted for yourself and already heard yourself express.

Reasons and Rationalizations

Anticipate the typical rationalizations given for ethically questionable behavior and identify counter-arguments. These rationalizations are predictable and vulnerable to reasoned response.

Mary C. Gentile, PhD is a senior research scholar at Babson College. She is author of Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, from which this article is excerpted. To find out more, visit and

*Giving Voice to Values’ pioneering curriculum is being piloted on six continents in more than 100 schools and organizations. It has been featured in Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly Online, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The New York Times, Financial Times, etc. To get started, please visit|