From Doubts to Discovery: Mary Gentile’s Journey to Build Giving Voice to Values

17 October 2016

By Jay Hodgkins

New University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Mary Gentile knew something wasn’t adding up.

By the time she left Harvard Business School as a faculty member and one of the architects of the school’s ethics and corporate values curriculum, she had interacted with thousands of MBA students who, by and large, had strong ethical values that could guide them in their careers. And yet, Gentile kept witnessing a cycle of major business scandals, often with MBA graduates involved at some level — either directly or indirectly.

The problem, she concluded, wasn’t that business people lacked ethics and values, it was that they needed the skills to effectively act on their values and stop unethical behavior. Further, it wasn’t that ethics and values couldn’t be taught through MBA programs, but that B-schools were focusing exclusively on ethical analysis instead of ethical implementation.

That revelation ultimately led Gentile to develop Giving Voice to Values (GVV), the pioneering business curriculum for values-driven leadership that is now hosted at Darden.

“Giving Voice to Values is about asking and answering a new question. Once we know the right thing to do, how do you get it done effectively?” Gentile said. “Instead of ‘what is right,’ the question becomes ‘how do you get the right thing done?’”

The path from Harvard to GVV was hardly that easy, though. Gentile said she had a “crisis of faith” about the value of teaching ethics before stumbling onto some intriguing data from Columbia Business School students about their experiences with ethical dilemmas in the workplace.

“I read thousands of their responses and learned that almost all of them had been asked, at some point, to do something that felt wrong to them,” said Gentile, who came to Darden from Babson College. “They were asked to inflate billable hours or exaggerate the capabilities of a product. The scenarios came up repeatedly, but their responses differed.”

In fact, their actions broke down into three categories:

  • Those who were bothered by the situation but did nothing
  • Those who were bothered so much they quit or removed themselves from the situation
  • Those who were bothered and tried to do something about it.

Of those who tried to do something, a significant number said they tried and succeeded in righting the unethical situation. Gentile wanted to know what made this subset so different, and began to look for research that might shed light on this question.

Through further interviews with practitioners and scholars, she began to conclude that “rehearsal” — pre-scripting, action planning, peer coaching — would be an effective way to influence behaviors. Essentially, Gentile realized that students need to practice values-driven leadership. They needed scripts for what to say and do when something in the workplace was not in keeping with their values.

And that scripting is the heart of Giving Voice to Values, Gentile said. In the same way people practice self-defense until protecting themselves becomes instinct, so, too, do students and business leaders in courses that use GVV cases and curricula learn to implement ethical behavior.

“Awareness and analysis are essential objectives for business ethics education, but they’re not enough,” Gentile said. “What we really need is a third ‘A’ — action.”

Because the GVV curriculum is designed not just to be taught by ethics faculty, but instead allows professors in areas from business operations to marketing to use the language of their discipline, the use of GVV resources has spread with tremendous speed. GVV has been piloted in more than 920 educational and business settings on all seven continents, well beyond just the graduate business school setting for which it was originally designed. Lockheed Martin, Unilever, Prudential, Australian Financial Markets Association and Inter-American Development Bank  are just a few of the organizations that have used the GVV approach in training.

In addition to cases and curricula, which will now be available through Darden Business Publishing, Gentile has also authored the award-winning book “Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right” and partnered with to launch six online interactive social cohort-based modules around GVV.

As Professor of Practice at Darden, Gentile not only brings GVV to the School, she also adds a leading voice on ethics and values to Darden’s top-ranked faculty. In 2015, Gentile was named one of the 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics by Ethisphere and won a lifetime achievement award for her thought leadership from Trust Across America-Trust Around the World.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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