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date: 09 April 2020

Ethics Education: How Giving Voice to Values Fills in the “Action Gap”

Summary and Keywords

Giving Voice to Values (GVV) is a rehearsal and case-based approach to business ethics education that is designed to develop moral competence and that emphasizes self-assessment, peer coaching and prescriptive ethics. It is built on the premise that many businesspeople want to act on their values but lack the know-how and experience for doing so. The focus is on action rather than developing ethical awareness or analytical constructs for determining what is right and the epistemology behind knowing that it is right, while acknowledging that existing and well-established approaches to these questions are also important. The GVV rubric for acting on one’s values is based upon the following three questions: (1) What’s at stake? (2) What are the reasons and rationalizations you are trying to counter? and (3) What levers can be used to influence those who disagree? Taken together, the answers to these questions constitute a script for constructing a persuasive argument for effecting values-based change and an action plan for implementation. This approach is based on the idea, supported by research and experience, that pre-scripting and “rehearsal” can encourage action.

GVV is meant to be complementary to traditional approaches to business ethics that focus on the methodology of moral judgment. GVV cases are post-decision-making in that they begin with a presumed right answer and students are invited to engage in the “GVV Thought Experiment,” answering the questions: “What if you were going to act on this values-based position? How could you be effective?” This implies a shift in focus towards values-based action in ways that recognize the pressures of the business world. As a consequence of this shift, GVV addresses fundamental questions about what, to whom, and how business ethics is taught. The answers to these questions have led to widespread adoption of GVV in business schools, universities, corporations, and beyond.

Keywords: business ethics, Giving Voice to Values, MBA, values-based education, prescriptive ethics, behavioral ethics

The Case for Business Ethics Education

Concerted efforts towards values-based education within business programs have been around for over 50 years, often under the guise of business ethics, leadership, or compliance. The focus and emphasis of these efforts have evolved, but the core idea is that business education should equip future managers with the skills and knowledge to build, sustain, and function within organizations that are not only financially sustainable but also provide useful products and services while operating within the legal, regulatory, and ethical norms of society. Thus value is defined not only as economic, but also as social, environmental, and ethical. Initially, the primary concerns were product safety, environmental damage, the fate of the “hard-core” urban unemployed (Hanson, 2014), ethical marketing and integrity in financial reporting, and justifying the need for values-based education owing to market-based critiques that business had no inherent social responsibility to address such issues (e.g., Friedman, 1970). As progress in these initial areas has been made, values-based education has evolved to address such issues as the treatment of women and minorities, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and the myriad challenges of globalization. What has not changed, however, is the conundrum about the place and effectiveness of values-based curricula within business education. For example, in his portrait of the Harvard Business School (HBS), McDonald (2017, p. 336) maintains that HBS has continually faced difficulty in truly incorporating ethics into the curriculum, labeling it as an “ongoing challenge.” Arce (2004) finds the coverage of ethics within managerial economics texts intended for MBAs to be “conspicuously absent.” As a career in finance is one of the most popular rationales for pursuing an MBA, Hendry’s (2013, p. vii) observation that, “despite the recent financial crisis and the ensuing popular debate, the ethics of finance is even less developed now than business ethics was then [in the mid-1980’s]” is particularly disconcerting given the increasing global importance of the financial sector.

Could graduate business education be making things worse? “All business schools constantly transmit ethical messages . . . classes in marketing, finance, economics, or human resources all contain moral messages, only they are implicit and hence likely to be transmitted uncritically” (Etzioni, 1991, p. 364). For example, many MBAs are exposed to the use of economics for business decision-making. Such training in economics has been shown to substantially limit the nuance of decision-making when layoffs are on the table (Arce & Li, 2011; Rubinstein, 2006) or decrease the use of compassion when delivering negative news, for example, from a working professional to an employee (Molinsky, Grant, & Margolis, 2012). Giacalone and Promislo (2012) take a step back from the effects of postgraduate and postsecondary education and argue that, prior to matriculation, many individuals already possess economic and power-based worldviews that stigmatize goodness and business ethics education. To wit, materialistic thinking is the norm in a sound bite-driven culture (or one based on 280 Twitter characters) and this makes it all the more difficult for students to accept the need for developing critical thinking skills about the ethical conduct of business beyond what it contributes to the bottom line. By contrast, values-based education is intentionally designed to lie at the intersection of profit maximization and sound judgment (McDonald, 2017). As put by Bove and Empson (2013, p. 82), “although it is infinitely possible to think of (corporate) strategy without ethics, capitalistic social relations make it very hard to image ethics as yet being able to dispense with strategy.” Values-based education is a contribution to, rather than a detraction from, gaining a nuanced understanding of the firm as an organization.

Indeed, Mintzberg (2004) undertakes an analysis of the long-term performance of 19 HBS-educated CEOs, a sample selected by the managing editor of the Harvard Business Review (Ewing, 1990). He finds that many (14) ultimately failed, owing to an emphasis on functional aspects of their business (usually finance) over nuance. Mintzberg’s (2004) back-of-the-envelope analysis of MBA education and its distorted image of managerial practice is bolstered by two empirical studies of the effects of an MBA education on values and a firm’s performance. Williams, Barrett, and Brabston (2000) consider the MBA education of top management teams, consisting of those senior executives charged with conducting the day-to-day operations of 184 firms continuously listed in the Fortune 500 from 1991–1994. They find a statistically significant relation between the prevalence of MBA education among top management and firm size, when these two measures are used as explanatory variables for the occurrence of illegal corporate activity. Paradoxically, no significant relation exists when the firm’s strategy is instead used as the dependent variable, rather than illegal corporate activity, even though strategy is a cornerstone of MBA education. Miller and Xu (2017) examine the effect of having a CEO with an MBA on a firm’s revenue management practices and research and development (R&D) expenditure. They show that having a CEO with an MBA statistically increases the likelihood of revenue management and decreases R&D expenditure, both of which contribute to decreased firm performance. From a values-based perspective, both practices are examples of expedients that favor short-term shareholders and remuneration tied to the goals of such shareholders over the interests of other stakeholders. Strikingly, Miller and Xu (2017) find that firms with CEOs with MBAs from top MBA programs are the worst offenders.

One could further motivate the case for values-based business education via appeals to high-profile instances of wrongdoing or the ethical circumstances surrounding the dot.com/new economy and global financial crises of this millennium. Instead of rationalizing values-based education as a form of crisis prophylactic, an alternative approach is to instead view values-based education as a leverage point in the sense of Meadows (2008). A leverage point is a small change within the system that causes a large shift in behavior. Giving Voice to Values (Gentile, 2010) is an example of such a leverage point for values-based education within the business curriculum (Arce & Gentile, 2015). The idea behind Giving Voice to Values (GVV) is to shift the focus of values-based education from “what is right?” to “what do I do when I know what is right?,” thereby acting as a leverage point to promote values-based considerations as part and parcel of business decision-making. The shift in focus to values-based action is what makes GVV an effective leverage point. In this way, GVV is also a portal for engagement with time-honored analytical models of normative decision-making in order to guide values-based actions.

GVV starts with the premise that most of us want to act on our values. To wit, Gentile (2012) provides the imagery of a distribution of the ethical willingness to act of individuals that is akin to a bell curve spanning a range from “idealists” at one end to “opportunists” at the other (Dees & Crampton, 1991). The distribution is centered on a majority (“pragmatists”) that are willing to interject values into the decision-making process if they can be shown a viable means for doing so. The means to do so are developed by applying the GVV rubric for acting on one’s values to GVV business cases. In this way, GVV is also post-decision-making in that the decisions about what is right and the need for action are already resolved as part of the background to the case. The stakes are also lowered because GVV cases are designed to correspond to and fit within the context of functional areas of business education such as accounting, finance, marketing, and production, rather than standing apart as points of inflexion in an organization’s overall values. Given that the business context of GVV cases is generally well understood by students, GVV cases are also shorter than most business cases. This is by design as one of the major obstacles to adopting values-based education is that professors feel that they already do not have enough time to cover discipline-specific material.

There are currently over 70 GVV cases available, ranging from “A” (Agency Theory and Corporate Governance) to “W” (Who’s My Boss?). Topics include bribery, diversity, market research, and internet search optimization. They are available without charge at the GVV curriculum page.

For example, in the case “The Client Who Fell Through The Cracks,” a young financial analyst is told by her boss to find a better benchmark to use to make the client’s portfolio performance look better than it was. The analyst knows she does not want to do this, and the case is not about whether or not the boss’s directions are acceptable or even about whether or not it is possible to do anything about them; rather, the students craft an action plan and script to use to influence the protagonist’s boss to change his mind. Their scripts and plans use the language, frameworks, and tools of the discipline at hand (finance, in this case) rather than appealing to ethical theory from philosophy.

The GVV rubric for considering each case requires students to address and construct answers to the following three questions:

  1. (1) What’s at stake?

  2. (2) What are the reasons and rationalizations you are trying to counter? and

  3. (3) What levers can be used to influence those who disagree?

Responses to these questions constitute the GVV action plan and the accompanying script, a device that can be used to make values-based arguments and support the associated actions.

GVV flips the conundrum of whether values-based premises should be present in business education to a pragmatic focus on how to accomplish values-based leadership given the pressures of the real world (Gentile, 2010). In so doing, GVV addresses fundamental questions about what, who, and how business ethics is taught. Readers may recognize these questions as a subset of reporters’ “5 W’s” formula: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Here, they are instead used in the sense of Headlee (2017), that is, as a guide towards a meaningful discussion; specifically, about the nature of values-based education and what to do about it. The GVV flip provides both meaningful and tractable answers to what, who, and how. In addition, these answers illustrate that GVV clarifies the relationship between values-based education and business-specific curricula, thereby providing a means for how the two can be successfully received and integrated by students and faculty alike.

What Can I Do About It?

Much of values-based inquiry is concerned with addressing the question: “What is right and how do we know that it is right?” This is a natural entry point for material relating to methods of moral decision-making (deontological, utilitarian, distributive justice, virtue, etc.). Logically, then, business ethics education is often built around a) establishing ethical awareness among students, and b) introducing students to the tools of ethical analysis in the form of normative decision-making. A drawback of this approach is that it implicitly attributes ethical failures to a lack of education in moral foundations or faulty understanding of moral methodology. By contrast, Hosmer (1996) observes that many students with prior work experience have knowingly found themselves in situations on the job where they knew what was going on was wrong, but did not know what to do. Here, lack of awareness is not the problem.

The “GVV Thought Experiment” invites students to consider, “What if they were going to take this values-based action? How could they be effective?” In this post-decision-making environment, moral awareness is not the problem to be overcome. In addition, there are no analytical traps to be avoided. In GVV cases the decision-maker has already identified a wrong to be addressed. This facilitates an emphasis on action: what should I do? In this way, GVV recognizes that when awareness is not the problem, students still need practical experience in how to act on their values. Note that this is not in any way meant to downgrade the importance of normative decision-making in values-based education. What GVV represents is a complement to this approach.

GVV cases begin with a presumed right answer and shift the focus to what needs to be done. The emphasis is on prescriptive ethics—that is, action. Moreover, GVV provides a rubric for answering this question. As noted, what first needs to be done is to prepare a GVV script that adheres to the rubric (1) what’s at stake? (2) what are the reasons and rationalizations you are trying to counter? and (3) what levers can be used to influence those who disagree? “What’s at stake?” is an invitation to think broadly about all of the stakeholders involved and how they will be positively and negatively affected. GVV forces the decision-maker to recognize that s/he is not on an island but must consider potential allies as well as those that must be convinced. Thus, while GVV is post-decision-making, this does not mean that it presumes that action will be easy. For this reason, serious consideration must be given to the potential roadblocks that will arise for persuading those that may need convincing. GVV acknowledges that there may be good business reasons and rationalizations for why a values-based perspective has not been considered up until now and it does not presuppose that the status quo can be easily changed. Only by considering opposing viewpoints can the necessary levers be identified for taking action while preserving working relationships. Indeed, this is where exposure to the tools of ethical analysis and moral decision-making can be helpful in crafting a persuasive argument.

Steps 1–3 in the GVV rubric are designed to culminate in identifying the most powerful and persuasive response to the reasons and rationalizations that need to be addressed, and expanding upon this response. Moreover, students should identify to whom the argument should be made, where, and in what context. They should seek out and identify related positive examples that can be drawn upon. GVV is an invitation for students to think strategically about how to incorporate their values within their organization. It does not require a student to take a utopian or self-sacrificing stand. In this way, the GVV script prepares students to intervene by considering their most effective levers.

Consequently, GVV builds cumulatively upon itself in at least two ways. Firstly, repeated application of the rubric as a theme to be varied upon demonstrates the underlying commonalities of values-based action. Secondly, GVV-based values-driven leadership is non-hierarchical. The cases involve individuals engaging in change on issues arising at their rank within their profession. A lesson to be learned is that the means to effect values-driven change do not require executive power. GVV is meant to harness the power of individual and small group action to produce change.

Who: Recognizing Giving Voice to Values’ Audience

The original intended audience for GVV was MBA students. The MBA is unlike much of master’s-level education in that it is a broadening rather than a specialization. Students are first exposed to many of the functional areas of business through what would be introductory master’s-level courses in disciplines such as accountancy, economics, finance, marketing, operations management, statistics, and so forth, or cases where material associated with these disciplines proves useful. Such a broad survey is unlike the specialization that takes place at the master’s level within each of these respective disciplines. This is because the underlying objective of an MBA is to arrive at a holistic understanding of organizational performance. Whether this is accomplished, however, is another matter. As Brinkman and Sims (2001) assert, one of the primary functions of values-based education is that it can serve as a bridge-builder for integrating the business curriculum as a whole. GVV is designed with this in mind.

Why, then, is values-driven education often viewed as a piece apart by business faculty and students alike? Perhaps it is because of the tenuous connection between values-driven education and the bottom line. Indeed, the rationale for the success of the firm is already overspecified, as each of the functional areas of business lays claim to being a prime driver of profit. Establishing a direct connection between the paradigms of a discipline and the success of the firm serves to bolster further emphasis on the discipline within the MBA curriculum. For example, Khurana (2007) chronicles the rise of agency theory as a unified approach to organizational theory and corporate governance, thereby becoming what Bebchuk and Fried (2004) label as the “official story” of managers’ place within the firm as being defined by a nexus of contracts between ownership and management. This rise to prominence is explained by the explicit and implicit connection agency theorists established between managerial incentives and a firm’s performance. Ironically, it has nothing to do with addressing the moral aspects of the moral hazard problem that agency theory purportedly addresses (McCaffrey, 2017). Similarly, the intense research effort toward establishing a connection between profit and CSR has caused CSR to lose much of its connection to its values-driven origin in favor of a strategic rationale (e.g., Fernandez-Kranz & Santalo, 2010; McWilliams & Siegel, 2001). Such appropriation can occur so long as the operationalization of values-driven education remains hypothetical for MBAs, rather than as an exemplar of “how to get things done.”

Indeed, many MBA students’ attitudes towards their curriculum can be characterized along the lines described by Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor David Kreps (2004, p. xvi), who maintains that, for MBA students, “the group ethic is that ideas that do not pay back in the first 5 months on the job are suspect and those that might not pay back in the first 5 years are a complete waste of time.” Maital (1994, p. viii) as well characterizes the culture of curriculum acceptance by executive MBA students in terms of the subject matter’s ability to pass a litmus test represented by the following questions: “So what? Why should I learn this? How can we use it? How do you know what you are telling me is true?” Within this vein, Mintzberg (2004, p. 118) raises the concern that MBA students “who seek ‘practical’ applications in the classroom seem to become disconnected managers who seek easy answers on the job—especially financial ones that make the company look good, for a time.” GVV provides a practical alternative in the form of a values-based perspective that fits within MBA students’ horizon for applicability.

GVV does this by shifting the perspective of traditional business ethics cases to emphasize those situations where most students can agree upon what is the right thing to do. With the debate about what is right removed, the stakes are normalized to be much closer to those commonly encountered in cases and exercises in the core MBA curriculum. Moreover, MBA students typically have work experience. Consequently, if they are honest with themselves they will be able to admit that they have previously found themselves in a situation where the right thing to do was not what was done. GVV is readily applicable to such experiences. By contrast, the (in)famous cases (e.g., Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol recall, Malden Mills, and Enron), gray areas, and “trolley” or “footbridge” dilemmas (Appiah, 2008) that tend to pervade the business ethics curriculum can be few and far between. Moreover, students recognize that the decisions in these cases are generally made by senior individuals that are years removed from their education. By contrast, students appreciate that the GVV rubric is immediately applicable to their current situation.

In addition to MBA programs, GVV has also been applied to undergraduate education in business. Undergraduates exhibit little of the work-experience-based circumspection about matters of curriculum that is pervasive in MBA programs. Instead, potential dangers exist for introducing values-oriented education to undergraduates via its connection to the humanities. By their choice of major, business undergraduates have revealed a preference over other disciplines that often constitute degree requirements in the form of university-wide core curriculum. Of particular note is that postmodernism is present in many areas of the humanities and social sciences (other than economics), but it does not have even a toe hold in any subdiscipline of business. Instead, business students evaluate their education in terms of objective knowledge based on rationality and empirical evidence, concepts that are antithetical to postmodernism and its conceptualization of alternative facts. Moreover, business undergraduates are implicitly indoctrinated in the benefits of liberalism (in the European sense) as a consequence of the association between liberalism and laissez-faire economics. For postmodernists, the “intrinsic good” of the laissez-faire system is equivocal because laissez-faire economies privilege ownership wealth. Similarly, many business students are skeptical about the relatively more progressive leanings of faculty in the humanities. As such, promoting values-based education via its connection to the humanities can be a non-starter for business undergraduates.

At the same time, there are at least two ironies associated with business undergraduates’ resistance to value-based education stemming from their exposure to postmodernism in the humanities. The first is that postmodernism rejects values-based ethics and philosophy in favor of moral relativity. Secondly, in the past few years the identity politics of postmodernism have been co-opted by the far right to create alternative facts that are in opposition to laissez-faire policies such as free trade, immigration, and multilateralism.

Given the student-oriented barriers to values-based education described above, there is much to be leveraged in terms of GVV’s organic origin within the business curriculum. GVV was conceived by Mary Gentile, growing out of her experience while on the faculty at HBS and her consulting with Columbia Business School, among others. The Aspen Institute served as founder, along with the Yale School of Management, and incubator for the GVV pedagogical approach and curriculum (Gentile, 2010). GVV is based upon and invites students to use the tools, vocabulary, and analytics of the various disciplines of business, rather than requiring a disciplinary shift to moral decision-making (Arce & Gentile, 2015). Indeed, in practice students often cite material from their core courses as the reasons and rationalizations that must be addressed when creating a GVV script. In this way, GVV naturally dovetails with other business disciplines. Moreover, the ultimate importance of the rationalization–curriculum connection is that it acts as a leverage point for students to integrate the values-driven portion of their education into their holistic understanding of organizational performance, instead of being viewed as a piece apart.

Interestingly, however, despite its origins and base in the business disciplines, GVV is also informed by lessons from the humanities and postmodernism’s emphasis on multiple perspectives since it is, at its heart, a narrative-based pedagogy. That is, a GVV case study will present the same set of facts as any other business case study but it will invite students to craft an alternative story about what may be possible. Much of the research that inspired GVV draws from the fields of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience with its emphasis upon the power of habit formation, positive deviance, brain plasticity, and the potential to create new neural pathways (Gentile, 2010).

In this way, GVV is purposeful in forcing students to integrate values-based considerations within the business disciplines in which students are gaining expertise. The emphasis is not on crisis management or how to be an effective whistleblower. Instead, the stakes are similar to other areas of the curriculum in that students are asked to produce action plans—including scripts based on the three key questions of the GVV rubric—for using their values to influence the business decision at hand. The pragmatism of GVV appeals to MBA students, undergraduates, and the corporate world. Returning to Gentile’s (2012) bell curve imagery, GVV is designed to bolster the quality, clarity, and success of pragmatists’ values-based efforts so that they can be at their best.

How: Giving Voice to Values in the Classroom

The third flip is that GVV focuses on a different set of problems for values-based learning. This is again because GVV addresses the question, “given that I know what is the right thing to do, how can I get it done?,” rather than, “what is the right thing to do?” This change in perspective occurs owing to both the post-decision-making nature of GVV and the focus on action. By contrast, addressing “what is right?” is often about forgoing an action because it is unethical. GVV is instead about finding values-based alternatives. This emphasis on ethical action plans is a significant change in how values-based learning is taught. Fortunately, it can be accomplished within a typical classroom environment. Specifically, GVV’s action orientation lends itself to instructors that are not specialists in ethical education, group work, and case-based or assignment-based courses. Once again, the business education roots of GVV are clear.

One of the most pressing obstacles to overcome in values-based education is the argument that it requires a specialist or at least an instructor that is comfortable with adjudicating competing values within the classroom. The post-decision-making nature of GVV removes the need for producing and defending the value or principle that is to be acted upon. Consequently, GVV can be used by faculty without formal training in normative analysis. In addition, many of the reasons and rationalizations that need to be countered stem from business disciplines, as discussed above. In this respect, the instructor’s specialization or area may put them at an advantage over faculty specialists in ethical analysis.

Still, the non-specialist may be uncomfortable with the idea that, as the knowledge authority in the classroom, they may be tasked with being students’ ultimate source for identifying levers to implement values-based action. For this reason, most GVV cases include a resolution in the instructor version of the case. All of the GVV cases are based on real-world events (although usually disguised), thereby lending credibility to the lever(s) identified for ethical action. Yet the case’s resolution is just one possibility; students are known to come up with many other viable alternatives. Some GVV cases additionally include talking points for all three elements of the GVV rubric. These include the cases on agency theory and corporate governance, product safety and preemptive recalls, and profit maximization and layoffs. Moreover, substantial values-based and ethical literatures often exist for the situations occurring in GVV cases. It is not difficult to do background research for the purpose of identifying talking points. In this respect, the preparation required for a GVV case is again similar to that for other disciplines. Instructors should not expect it to be otherwise. Most importantly, students have been found to come up with innovative solutions on their own, and specialists and non-specialists alike are encouraged to keep track of these over time.

Much of business education involves groups. GVV recognizes this. The rubric of talking points provides an outline for the GVV script that is meant to spark a constructive conversation about values-based action within a business environment. Given that GVV cases are post-decision-making, no debate about what is the right thing to do is required. In this way, GVV purposefully avoids the potential pitfall of creating an adversarial conflict of values among group members. Certainly, such conflicts can be legitimate, which is why GVV is regarded as complementary to normative decision theory. Yet once a decision has been made, the question of implementation remains. GVV turns the group’s debate from “what is right?’” to “what are the effective actions?” Addressing this latter question is fundamental for successful teamwork, regardless of the discipline or objective. The only difference is that in a GVV case the group is tasked with finding a feasible action plan to implement the decision-maker’s values-driven objectives. The group approach to GVV facilitates peer coaching among members and, ultimately, consensus building. Both lead to greater effectiveness and confidence in GVV as a comprehensive skill. Finally, the instructor and classmates can comment on the practicality of the group’s action plan based on their own experiences, and what, perhaps, the group has missed.

The outputs associated with GVV cases are called scripts because that is precisely what they are: literally, a text to be followed for implementing values-based action. The message of GVV is that like scripts, values-based arguments can be prepared ahead of time, discussed, edited, and, most importantly, rehearsed. Most business decisions are not made on the fly, and GVV drives home the point that preparation is key for values-based action as well. Moreover, values-based actions are no longer treated as isolated cases, each of which requires its own approach. As discussed above, given the GVV rubric as a foundation, the means for implementing values-based actions becomes a matter of variations on the theme. Consequently, repeated production of GVV scripts for different business contexts creates muscle memory for values-based action. The process of generating values-based prescriptions thereby becomes regularized.

Given that GVV cases are available for a wide range of topics, incorporating GVV into a case-based course is fairly straightforward. Faculty and student versions exist for each case. For assignment-based courses, experience has shown that an introduction to GVV and an in-class run-through of a case with team breakouts takes about one to 1.5 hours. From there, GVV cases can be appended to any assignment. Again, the range of GVV cases that are available facilitates the selection of a case that is tailored to the subject matter of the assignment. Rather than being viewed as a digression, students often remark that GVV brings “the real world” to their assignments. In addition, a rubric for grading GVV cases was presented by Ingols (2013). This is particularly useful for non-specialists.

As an illustration of how GVV creates muscle memory for values-based action, consider the following example. One of the authors used GVV in a course on managerial economics, with discipline-specific topics ranging from elasticity to the learning curve to auctions. Over the course of a 15-week semester, one hour was used as an introduction to GVV and a case run-through. The case concerned managerial pricing decisions during a natural disaster (Arce & Gentile, 2011). Subsequently, a GVV case was included in the four problem sets turned in by groups over the semester. The non-GVV problems were either theoretical or involved complex calculations. Without any foreshadowing that GVV would be part of the final exam, the following question was asked on the final: list the three questions associated with the GVV rubric. Among the 50+ students in the class, over 90% had perfect answers. Certainly, this type of assessable outcome would please any accreditor.

Directions in Giving Voice to Values Adoptions

As explained, GVV was originally developed as a means to address a gap as well as a possible unintended negative consequence of traditional attempts to address ethics and values-driven leadership in MBA education. The gap was an absence of emphasis upon action. Rather than preparing students to craft scripts and action plans for ethical action and providing opportunities to literally rehearse and peer coach around these plans, the focus was entirely upon discerning the “right” thing to do, as if “knowing” were the same as “doing.” The unintended negative consequence of this approach was an inadvertent sort of schooling for sophistry: students would have the opportunity to rationalize and rehearse excuses for almost any action.

GVV—this new approach to business ethics education—coincided with an excitement and interest in social psychology, behavioral ethics, behavioral economics, cognitive neurosciences, and other related fields. Just as was the case with the models of ethical reasoning borrowed from philosophy, the insights from this new research are hugely impactful for ethics education. However, again just as with ethical analysis, the uses of these insights from psychology and behavioral ethics can have an unintended disempowering impact. Whereas the tensions between utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics can be exploited and utilized to help craft credible rationalizations for apparently unethical choices, the insights from new research about why and how we deceive ourselves and fall prey to decision-making biases and so forth (e.g., Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011) can feed our cynicism and belief in the impossibility of expecting (or enacting) ethical behavior (Gentile, 2017).

However, GVV draws upon and uses these powerful insights about decision-making and unconscious bias to enable ethical action rather than disable it. The GVV pedagogy recognizes this research, noting that these biases and heuristics developed for evolutionarily useful reasons. For example, no matter how much we may rail against short-term thinking and the tendency to discount the future, when we are running away from a predator, we are not going to think long term. So rather than warning students to watch out for biases, we name them and then encourage students to craft scripts and action plans that reflect this insight. If we are trying to encourage ethical action, for example, we will want to be sure to include some short-term incentives for doing the right thing or avoiding the wrong one. If we are concerned about false consensus bias, we will want to assemble an alternate social referent group, identifying others who share our viewpoint before we try to influence key decision-makers. And so on.

These profoundly pragmatic features of GVV—building on insights that are ascendant in the zeitgeist and taking what we know of human behavior and using it to support values-driven action—has made it attractive to other users well beyond its original intended audience. As noted above, in addition to MBA education, GVV has been adopted by undergraduate business faculty. Moreover, its action orientation has caught the attention of companies themselves, such as Unilever, Prudential, Lockheed Martin, and so on. It is also now being adapted for use in other professional education contexts such as law, medicine, nursing, and engineering (Bedzow, 2019; Plump, 2018).

In addition to the reasons noted above, GVV addresses several other challenges of organizational ethics education and training (Gentile, 2013). First of all, there is the challenge of limited time for in-person training initiatives. Rather than using this precious and limited commodity to simply convey information about rules and policies—information that can be efficiently communicated via online and print methods—the in-person time is spent in actual rehearsal for voicing and acting on values-driven decisions. As organizations that have used GVV are discovering, this sort of rehearsal is impactful both as ethics training but also as leadership development, providing a double return on the investment. After all, leadership is all about effective communication of often challenging (or at least not obvious) perspectives.

A second challenge for organizational ethics education is the perception of inconsistency. That is, there is a tendency for employees to perceive these initiatives as examples of a “preach and pretend” mindset: that is, programs preach the rules and guidelines and then pretend that it is easy or even expected that one adheres to them when the pressure is on. At worst, the message can seem hypocritical. The GVV approach addresses this challenge head-on by using examples that are based upon the organization itself, acknowledging the reality of the tensions and then engaging learners in working together to develop a feasible implementation plan. When senior and junior level managers are engaged in this process together, the impact can be even stronger. For example, middle and junior level employees can work in teams to craft action plans and scripts to address GVV-style scenarios while their senior managers work on the same scenarios but try to answer the question: “how could a junior or middle manager bring this issue to me in a way that would make it easier for me to respond appropriately?” When the two groups come together to debrief, there is a sort of natural social contracting than can occur, as well as a rehearsal for these challenging conversations.

A third challenge concerns the source of the training. If outside trainers are brought in, they may be skilled in facilitation but hold less credibility with employees. But if internal managers are used as trainers (perhaps applying a cascade model of training), they may not be as skillful or comfortable leading a discussion of ethics content. However, since the GVV scenarios are post-decision-making, the facilitator does not need to lead an ethics discussion. Rather, they are facilitating a strategizing, scripting, and action-planning conversation—something that plays to a manager’s typical strengths.

Fourthly, there is the challenge of relevance. Too often employees view this sort of training as a distraction, pulling them away from an already too full to-do list, with little return on the time invested. However, since the GVV methodology fuels actual skill-building and real-time collaboration, the return is much more apparent.

And finally, there is the ever-present question of impact. How do we know that this approach will actually work? GVV addresses this question on several levels. First of all, the approach is based upon the research noted earlier that suggests that rehearsal and pre-scripting is an effective way to build habits and create moral muscle memory. Although not about GVV specifically, this research inspired the approach. Secondly, GVV users began to report anecdotal evidence of impact on learners. Thirdly, some faculty used pre/post surveys to assess readiness and confidence for ethical action. But of course, the “holy grail” of such impact assessment would be an experiment, over time, to assess whether those who experienced this training behaved more ethically. Although such a study is difficult to design, given that it would be credible to report correlative links, it would be difficult to prove causal links between training and actions. Nevertheless, users in both educational as well as organizational settings have begun to gather data and the results are very promising. Accounting faculty in particular have shown good results (Christensen, Cote, & Latham, 2016).

For all these reasons, GVV continues to gather momentum, with well over 1,060 pilots on all seven continents and new interest every week. The original book has been translated into Chinese and Korean and selected curricular materials have been translated into Russian. There are several efforts under way to translate selected curricular materials into Arabic, German, and other languages. The approach has been piloted in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, India, Japan, and the Philippines, to name just a few of the many applications. And although some have wondered if the approach was peculiar to or only relevant for North American or Western European users, it has been embraced globally precisely because it recognizes the cultural differences and contextual challenges of different settings without suggesting that these differences preclude the existence of certain core values among people around the world. Rather than preaching to users that they need to adopt external values, GVV starts from the premise that we all already have values but that our circumstances may make them challenging to act upon, and then the GVV approach proceeds to help individuals look for positive examples and methods to do so that work locally. In this way, GVV starts from a position of respect and a genuine learning stance (Gentile, 2016). For examples, of the many applications of GVV and the responses by practitioners and academics, see the many publications and media mentions at Giving Voice To Values.

However, at the end of the day, the core insight of GVV is not rocket science. It is simply about asking and answering a new question when it comes to ethical behavior in business: rather than “what is the right thing to do in any given situation?,” GVV attempts to ask and literally rehearse the answer to “once you know what is right, how can you get it done, effectively?” By pre-scripting, practicing, and peer coaching the answers to this question, learners begin to develop the “moral muscle memory” for values-driven leadership.

Further Readings

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