The Actions of Ethical Behavior

July 2, 2019

The Actions of Ethical Behavior

News headlines frequently shout about the ethical failure of business leaders. Powerful individuals get caught in scandals, choose money over lawful behavior, or have a lapse in judgment. Yet few companies are without values or mission statements. Training on harassment and compliance are regularly provided and enforced. Why is there a disconnect between the desire for ethical behavior and actions in real life?

This was exactly the gap that Mary Gentile, Ph.D., set out to fill with her Giving Voice to Values platform. Giving Voice to Values (GVV) is an innovative approach to values-driven leadership development in business education and the workplace. Starting from the premise that most of us already want to act on our values, GVV is not about persuading people to be more ethical, but about increasing the odds to being effective and successful in voicing and enacting our values. 

Gentile, professor at University of Virginia Darden School of Business, advisor to the Aspen Institute, and author of Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, launched GVV at the Aspen Institute, with the support of Yale School of Management and Babson College. GVV is now based at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. 

“GVV is all about action; rather than preaching that employees and leaders should act ethically, GVV begins from the premise that most of us want to act on our values,” said Gentile. “We just don’t always think we have the option. It appeals to the individual’s own aspirations.”

GVV asks the questions: 

  • What if I were going to act on my values? 
  • What would I say and do? 
  • How could I be most effective?

The key is the being effective. GVV is not about punishment or whistle-blowing, although those last-resort actions are sometimes required. GVV is about enabling more of us to understand how and why others disagree with our positions; to anticipate the reasons and rationalizations we will encounter; to reframe our positions in ways that mitigate the risks to our intended audience; to offer viewpoints and action plans that allow others to change their minds without humiliation. And importantly, by engaging leaders, managers, employees, and/or our fellow citizens in pre-scripting, rehearsing, and peer coaching around values-driven positions, they build the moral muscle memory that makes it more likely that this will be their natural, unforced response. 

GVV builds upon the skills already present in leaders and employees. This approach helps to frame value conflicts and recognize ways to play to their strengths in speaking up for their values. Using exercises like role playing, rehearsing, and reframing, GVV can be integrated into training in several areas, including leadership, communication, compliance, and more. Once the ethical guidelines are set, GVV takes the next step in answering  how those guidelines ger applied in common work situations. 

How to Begin
According to Kevin Basik, Ph.D., retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and President of Basik Insight, LLC., the process starts with clarifying our identity as individuals and as a company.  

“GVV is a collection of tools to help us act in a way that proves we're serious about that identity,” says Basik. “A natural point of entry often comes when new leadership or teams enter the equation, or when a significant change takes place. In these moments, leaders can re-plant the flag regarding commitments and expectations for members of the company.”

Stacie Chappell, associate professor of Management at Western New England University, agrees that GVV is flexible to fit any company or situation. 

“Implementing GVV can vary—it can be as simple as a manager upskilling their team through focused conversations at team meetings, or as complex as formal training and dedicated space,” says Chappell. "There is a need to allow for both the core concepts to be explained and explored, and discussion of how they are applied to situations within the company. Places that might be a natural entrance are team development sessions, existing staff development initiatives, company retreats, interest group meetings, etc. “

The workplace can be the ideal place to learn how to focus on anticipating and preparing for effective action and expression—rather than on simply shouting down the “other side” or on punishment alone. These skills may be the key to moving beyond polarization to values-driven leadership and values-driven organizational cultures. 

For more on Giving Voice to Values and the various ways it can be implemented, explore the Summer 2019 issue of People + Strategy.

The Authors: 

Deborah Stadtler is Managing Editor at HR People + Strategy.