B-Skills: An Interview with Mary Gentile on Ethical Leadership

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I got frustrated with the way we tended to teach in a business school setting or a corporate setting around business leadership and ethics…It seemed to me that we were stopping short and acting as if this was just an intellectual problem when it was more of a skill and practice problem.
Dr. Mary Gentile, Professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Creator of the Giving Voice to Values Framework

The master’s of business administration is a rite of passage for those wishing to work at the helm of corporate America. Nearly half of business school graduates ended up in finance in the years leading up to the economic crisis, so when the housing market crashed, financial institutions collapsed, and the recession hit, many were left wondering if business schools are to blame.

The 2008 financial crisis shined a light on the ethics of business schools. Critics of business school education contend that the curriculum focuses too strongly on maximizing shareholder value and finding quick solutions to nuanced issues while deprioritizing the ethical and social components of business leadership. Leadership is taught as a theoretical course rather than one grounded in quantitative reasoning, which tends to ring hollow with analytical, business-focused professionals.

Business ethics is the application of moral or ethical values to a business. Today, it is a common course in business programs, but its history is relatively short. Ethics was first introduced into the world of business in the 1970s through academic teaching and research.

However, the term “business ethics” became more frequently used in the media and with the public following a string of corporate scandals. Finding themselves under public attack and criticism, companies began establishing human resources departments, mission statements, and codes of conduct as well as corporate social responsibility programs.

At the same time, business ethics as an academic field began to blossom; however, it remained largely confined to social issues courses taught by theologians and religious thinkers. Norman E. Bowie, an influential voice in business ethics, credits the University of Kansas as the birthplace of business ethics when the school held the first conference on the subject.

From there, experts compiled anthologies and wrote textbooks, and business schools around the country created their own courses. By the mid-1980s, there were more than 500 classes, 20 textbooks, and 40,000 students learning about business ethics.

Dr. Mary Gentile and Giving Voice to Values

Despite its relative mainstream adoption across MBA programs, ethics can still be elusive in business. The dishonesty and deception of emissions testing at Volkswagen, the unconsented sale of user data at Facebook to Cambridge Analytica, and the toxic culture of sexual harassment and “bro culture” at Uber are just a few recent examples of the some of the largest corporate scandals in recent years. More broadly, the #MeToo movement, lack of private consumer data, and unchanged diversity and inclusion reports are all proof of just how far we have to go in teaching ethics in business.

Mary Gentile

“Increasingly, research in social psychology and neuroscience suggests that when people encounter a values conflict, they don’t necessarily stop to do an analysis,” says Dr. Mary Gentile, creator and director of the Giving Voice to Values curriculum and a professor of practice at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. “We all tend to react emotionally in an automatic or unconscious response and rationalize afterward, and a lot of that comes from what we actually believe is possible. We have to rewire that automatic response.”

Dr. Gentile developed Giving Voice to Values (GVV) to fill in the gaps of business ethics education. GVV is an action-oriented program that takes an analytical approach to ethics. Instead of educating students about how to have ethics, the program teaches them how to act on their ethics. It presumes that we all have values and want to act on them, but that we do not feel like we can.

The program was launched by the Aspen Institute and is now based at the Darden School of Business. Although first created as part of a graduate business curriculum, GVV has had more than 1,100 pilots in business settings around the world and across various academic levels. The program is also now available online with Coursera. Giving Voice to Values grew out of Dr. Gentile’s experience as a faculty member at Harvard Business School and Babson College and as a consultant with other business schools.

“I got frustrated with the way we typically tended to teach in a business school setting or a corporate setting around business leadership and ethics,” she recalls. “We focused on the cognitive problems and the ethical dilemmas—those are important things, but I was seeing that students and practitioners knew what the appropriate thing to do was but didn’t think they had the choice and that they could act in that way effectively. It seemed to me that we were stopping short and acting as if this was just an intellectual problem when it was more of a skill and practice problem.”

How Does GVV Work?

Often, ethics classes prepare an in-depth analysis of an ethical dilemma and debate the issue, but having a theoretical understanding of what is right or wrong does not adequately prepare them to react accordingly in the workplace. Employees across all levels are faced with pressures by their bosses, colleagues, customers, and shareholders. Wells Fargo employees were urged to create false customer accounts and Theranos workers were bullied into staying silent about false blood tests. Will a case study on Volkswagen’s cheating emissions tests teach MBA students how to speak up when they notice unethical practices in their place of work?

The goal of GVV is to do just that. The program arms students with the skills and confidence to act on their values by providing them with a toolkit for voicing and enacting on their values. Instead of having a philosophical debate about what is right and what is wrong, they rehearse and practice different scenarios and script their conversations so that they can face ethical dilemmas that might happen in the business world. Dr. Gentile calls this “moral muscle memory.”

This approach to ethical leadership helps to cement our perspective of the subject as a hard skill rather than a soft skill. The longstanding problem with soft skills, like communication, adaptability, and conflict resolution, is that they are more difficult to define, grasp, and teach, compared to what is more traditionally thought of as hard skills—like accounting and economics.

In the 1950s, studies commissioned by the Ford and Carnegie foundations revealed that business school curricula focused too much on vocational skills. As a result, business schools became much more analytical and rigorous but to the detriment of the school’s original purpose. “Business schools have forgotten that they are a professional school,” Warren Bennis, a professor of management at the University of Southern California told the New York Times.

Dr. Gentile ran into this conflict earlier in her career. When she would talk to the non-ethics faculty at business schools, they often had concerns and challenges about integrating ethics and values into their courses.

“It was not that any of them wouldn’t want their students to be values-based leaders,” she says. Rather, they would say things like, “I’m not a philosopher so I don’t feel equipped” or “I have a very crowded curriculum to teach students the fundamentals, this can crowd that out.” Another common concern was that ethics discussions often ended up being endless debates with no right answer, deliverable, or takeaway—and students didn’t like them. They didn’t feel like they were getting anything useful out of the conversation.

These are all reasonable objections admits Dr. Gentile, which is why she designed a pedagogy that responded to those concerns. The cases and scenarios within GVV are all based on “post-decision making” instead of ending with a protagonist who has to decide what is right. Students already have the answer and they need to put together an action plan for that answer.

This approach has opened up more possibilities for values-based education across different business school subjects—and beyond. Dr. Gentile wrote Educating for Values-Driven Leadership: Giving Voice To Values Across the Curriculum to build values-based conversations across the core curriculum of business schools. The book features chapters by faculty across disciplines, including economics, accounting, negotiations, and human resources, who use GVV. What’s more, GVV is increasingly being adapted for educational programs in other industries, including medicine, nursing, engineering, and law, as well as undergraduate programs. A few organizations are also experimenting with younger students, which could prove fruitful.

“Some people say that if you only talk about ethics as adults, it’s too late. People learn their values at an early stage and early socialization is hugely important,” she says. “But in a lot of research around adult socialization—event if you had that background, then you go into settings as an adult, you’re influenced by other people. My mother taught me how to be honest, but she didn’t teach me how to be honest in business or in the courtroom. You need both.”

Learning Ethical Leadership in MBA Programs

The need for values-based leadership is critical. It is a crucial skill that can change the course of business. Last year, an annual study by Strategy& found that more chief executives were dismissed for ethical lapses than for financial performance or board conflicts—the first time in the study’s history. Another study showed that CEOs with MBAs are more likely to manage for short-term profits.

Business schools have the power to reverse this trend by deemphasizing the bottom line and other approaches that encourage financial incentives. An MBA is no longer just about finance, marketing, accounting, and economics. It is a professional program that should teach students how to be the best leaders.

Dr. Gentile notes that when business schools survey alumni about their experience, alumni often admit that the courses they worried about the most were the hard skill classes but the ones that have been most instrumental in their careers have been the soft skill classes like organizational leadership and communication.

MBA students graduate with an in-depth understanding of hard business skills but only a surface-level grasp of soft business skills. The key is in marrying the two so that business leaders can act on their values across various disciplines. Employees, too, need to feel prepared for responding when their values are challenged. Schools need to be teaching practical techniques that empower confidence in voicing values and decision-making through a moral lens.

“I tell students, ‘I can’t make anyone do the right thing. I can make people understand that they have more choices than they think they do,’” she says. “You’re not asking them to use a different set of information. They’re using the same analytics and vocabulary, so it’s not replacing or distracting but extending the application of those skills.”

Unlike in most ethics classes, graduates of Giving Voice to Values leave with real takeaways. They see examples of how people have navigated an ethical dilemma effectively and work with their peers to generate more tactics and strategies that they can use in the future.

“For the first time, an ethics discussion feels actionable.”

Laura Childs
Laura Childs
Writer

Laura Childs is a versatile writer and media specialist living in London. She's a California native and has written about arts, culture, and tech in San Francisco. A self-proclaimed data nerd, she loves telling people's stories supported by research. When not writing, Laura teaches and practices yoga. You can find more of her work and get in touch at www.lbccreative.com.

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