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Visiting expert helps local educators give voice to values

Rochester Business Journal
January 6, 2012

On Dec. 9, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture presented by Mary Gentile to faculty from Rochester Institute of Technology and other local colleges. The professor is a 10-year veteran of Harvard Business School and a pioneer in the fields of business ethics and diversity management. Currently she is director of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum and senior research scholar at Babson College.
 
Gentile began by describing the general frustration and discouragement she experienced as a professor at Harvard, where significant efforts to give students a grounding in ethics have yielded mixed results. She observed that the typical business ethics class focuses on ethical theories and on "big, thorny dilemmas." While conceding that ethical decision-making frameworks are important tools, Gentile said they are not by themselves sufficient to help business professionals act effectively on their natural impulse to do what they think is right.
 
Gentile further observed that many of the most significant challenges business professionals face are not circumstances in which it is difficult to discern "the right thing to do." Instead, she stated, it is far more common for business professionals to face challenges associated with responding to situations in which they are asked to do something they think is wrong or see others acting inappropriately.
 
After giving this problem a great deal of thought, Gentile began creating a business ethics curriculum with a fundamentally different focus. Instead of presenting students with a dilemma and asking, "What's the right thing to do?" Gentile's approach presumes that the correct course of action is known and asks, "What steps can be taken to get the 'right thing' done?" This focuses students' attention on nuts-and-bolts issues: "Whom do I speak to?" "What do I say?" and "How do I say it?" The principal object of these exercises is to help students learn to effectively give voice to their values when they enter the workforce.
 
Gentile was quick to point out that persuading others to do what is right is often very difficult and may be beyond an individual's capability. Nevertheless, she likened the Giving Voice to Values curriculum to the "full-force attacks" that participants in self-defense classes are subjected to so they can develop the "muscle memory" to react effectively to a real attack. By working with others in a classroom to develop specific strategies for dealing with circumstances they may encounter in their work lives, students get the practice they need to cope with ethical challenges.
 
Gentile further explained that the GVV curriculum is premised on 12 "starting assumptions":
 
 

  • I want to do this.
  • I have done this before.
  • I can do this more and better.
  • It is easier for me to do this in some contexts than others.
  • I am more likely to do this if I have practiced how to respond.
  • My example is powerful.
  • Mastering and delivering responses to frequently heard rationalizations can empower others who share my views to act, but I cannot assume I know who those folks are.
  • The better I know myself, the more I can prepare to play to my strengths and be protected from my weaknesses.
  • I am not alone.
  • Although I may not always succeed, voicing and acting on my values is worth doing.
  • Voicing my values leads to better decisions.
  • The more I believe it's possible, the more likely I will be to do this. 

After reviewing these assumptions with students to set the stage for what is to come, Gentile explained that the foundational exercise in the GVV curriculum is called "The Tale of Two Stories." In Part I of this exercise, students are asked to recall a time when their values conflicted with what they were asked to do and they had the courage to speak up to resolve the conflict. Then they are asked to write down and reflect on the answers to these questions:
 
1. What did you do, and what was the impact?
 
2. What motivated you to speak up and act?
 
3. How satisfied are you? How would you like to have responded? (This question is not about rejecting or defending past actions but rather about imagining your ideal scenario.)
 
4. What would have made it easier for you to speak/act?
 
Things within your own control?
Things within the control of others?

In Part II of the exercise, students are asked to recall a time when their values conflicted with what they were asked to do and they failed to speak up to resolve the conflict. Then they are asked to write down and reflect on the answers to these questions:
 
1. What happened?
 
2. Why didn't you speak up or act? What would have motivated you to do so?
 
3. How satisfied are you? How would you like to have responded? (This question is not about rejecting or defending past actions but rather about imagining your ideal scenario.)
 
4. What would have made it easier for you to speak or act?

  • Things within your own control?
  • Things within the control of others?

Gentile pointed out that this exercise is a form of "narrative therapy" that helps students rewrite their stories and learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. It also helps them consider strategies that will enable them to manage such circumstances better in the future.
 
If you are interested in learning more about Gentile's innovative approach to teaching business ethics, I recommend her book, "Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right," and the associated website, www.givingvoicetovalues.org, both of which contain many more teaching aids and materials for those interested in applying the GVV approach in their company.

Jim Nortz is compliance director at Bausch & Lomb Inc. and a member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are Nortz's alone and may not reflect those of Bausch & Lomb or the RABEF. For more information about the RABEF, visit www.rochesterbusinessethics.com. Nortz can be reached at (585) 260-8960 or james.a.nortz@bausch.com.1/6/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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