Mary C. Gentile: An interview by Bob Morris

Mary C. Gentile

Mary C. Gentile is Senior Research Scholar at Babson College; Senior Advisor, Aspen Institute Business & Society Program; and consultant. Previously Gentile was faculty member and case development manager at Harvard Business School. She is author of Giving Voice To Values: How To Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (Yale University Press 2010, Gentile is Director of Giving Voice to Values (GVV), a business curriculum launched by Aspen Institute and Yale SOM, now based at Babson College. This pioneering approach to values-driven leadership has been featured in Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, strategy+business, Stanford Social Innovation Review, McKinsey Quarterly, BizEd, etc. and has been piloted in over 100 business schools and organizations globally. Gentile consults with corporations, non-profits and schools on leadership development, ethics and education. At Harvard Business School (1985-95), Gentile helped integrate ethics into the MBA. Gentile co-authored Can Ethics Be Taught? Perspectives, Challenges, and Approaches at Harvard Business School (with Thomas Piper, Sharon Parks, HBS Press, 1993). Other publications appear in Harvard Business Review, Risk Management, CFO, Academy of Management Learning and Education, BizEd, Strategy+Business, etc. Gentile holds a B.A. from College of William and Mary and Ph.D. from State University of New York-Buffalo.

Morris: Before discussing your brilliant book, Giving Voice to Values, a few general questions. First, as the titles of your various books and articles suggest, you have an especially strong interest in diversity. Why?

Gentile: First, thank you for the opportunity to talk about these topics that I believe are so important. As for my interest in diversity, I believe it is closely aligned with my work on the project, Giving Voice To Values. That is, there are often times when we may witness (or personally experience) situations where some individuals are not treated with the same respect or care as others, precisely due to some difference in their identities, their styles, their experiences, or their perspectives. Often it is difficult to speak up in such a situation, for ourselves or for others. What’s more, when we do speak up, sometimes it is with the kind of emotion or judgment that can lead our audiences to become defensive and to freeze in their positions.

While at Harvard Business School, I developed a set of pedagogical materials and designed and taught the first course there on Managing Diversity, precisely because I wanted to better understand this phenomenon and to find ways to enable future managers and leaders to talk about and address these kinds of inequities constructively. I believed that we would all come to better decisions and we would create more humane and ultimately more livable and more sustainably productive workplaces if we knew how to speak to each other about difficult issues and if we were more able to listen to and learn from diverse points of view.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like Giving Voice To Values?

Morris: Here’s my favorite passage in Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Please share your own opinion of it, especially in terms of its relevance to effective leadership.

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Gentile:  Well, this is a wonderfully succinct expression of participative and empowering leadership. It reflects an approach that is both respectful and pragmatic. In this way, it is quite akin to the Giving Voice To Values (GVV) approach to values-driven leadership.

That is, GVV does not dictate that there is one way to voice and enact our values. Rather we do well to examine our own strengths, style and preferences, and then to frame our values conflicts in ways that draw on our best. So if I am most comfortable in a “learner” role, I may raise my values-related concerns by asking the well-crafted and well-timed question, rather than by strenuously arguing a particular point of view. Or if I am a risk-taking, aggressive manager, I may frame the values conflict as just one more challenge that I want to take on, as opposed to a “constraint” on my action choices.

Much like the leaders in the Lao-Tzu quotation above, GVV ‘begins with what we have and builds on what we know,’ but GVV is as much about leading and enabling ourselves – to be more of who we want to be and to do so more effectively – as is about leading others.

Morris: Whenever I hear the phrase “shoot the messenger,” I think of corporate whistle-blowers. In your opinion, why are so many of them reviled and punished rather than praised and rewarded?

Gentile: Well, of course, there are many answers to that question. Whistle-blowers may be punished because they are seen as disloyal, as stepping outside of the organizational circle and exposing their own colleagues to negative consequences. They may be seen as somehow uncommitted, lacking in the strength or commitment that is needed to “get the job done.” And at the most basic level, they may be seen as “spoilers” who ruin the boss’s or their organization’s or their colleagues’ plan. At a deeper level, they may be reviled because they make visible to the rest of us the very things we don’t want to look at, about our own choices and our own failures to take a values-driven stand.

However, the Giving Voice To Values approach was designed precisely because the costs of whistle-blowing are often so high – not only to the whistle-blower and his or her family, but also to the organization itself, the whistle-blower’s colleagues, and so on. The thinking was that, in many of these whistle-blowing scenarios, there are likely other individuals, earlier on in the process, who also saw the problems but who did not feel that they had an option to speak or act. We wondered whether there was a way to better prepare and equip organizational participants to speak and act constructively, possibly collectively and early on, so as to avoid having to get to the point of costly and often devastating whistle-blowing scenarios.

Morris: After I read several of your articles, including those published by Harvard Business Review, here’s a question that occurred to me: What specifically can be done to establish and then sustain a culture within which everyone feels “safe” (if that’s the word) to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of rejection, ridicule, perhaps even abuse and punishment?

Gentile: I am so glad you asked that question. Often when people are introduced to the GVV approach to values-driven leadership development, they make the assumption that it is focused only on the individual. However, by more fully understanding how and why we can, as individuals, be more empowered and more skillful at voicing our values, we also are identifying a set of conditions that make it more likely that we will do so. These conditions become a sort of checklist for our own career choices – that is, they become a list of cultural characteristics we will look for in any potential employer. But these “enabling” conditions also become a sort of “recipe” for the kind of organizational culture and context that we will want to develop in the organizations that we lead.

Interestingly, many of the organizational characteristics that have been identified as conducive to effectively managing diversity and as conducive to fostering innovation and creativity in the workplace are also important for enabling employees to voice their values. Some examples include:

• Invite alternate viewpoints. By creating explicit occasions to invite dissenting viewpoints on a new project, strategy or policy, leaders enable employees to feel that their questions are welcomed and appreciated.

• Create “islands of time”. Although time pressures are a reality of business life that cannot be eliminated entirely and that even can create a beneficial focus at times, it can be powerful to set aside discrete occasions where individuals are invited to step back, to look at their projects from different vantages, to consider input not usually examined, and so on. This again encourages folks to express alternative points of view.

• Share your own thought process – and of times you changed your mind because of your values. When leaders are willing to talk through their own decision-making process, making visible that values are an important consideration, this sends a powerful signal to employees.

• Share stories of values-based choices.  Communicating and celebrating the times when individuals have made values-based decisions is, of course, empowering and can provide role models. But perhaps more importantly, it removes the sense of futility that often prevents employees from speaking up.

• Provide opportunities to pre-script typical responses to values conflicts. GVV is premised on the idea that both anticipating the kinds of values conflicts we are likely to encounter in a particular industry or firm or profession, and literally practicing responses to them, out loud, is hugely important.

Morris: Now please focus on your book, Giving Voice to Values. Please explain the process that led to your writing it.

Gentile: I have been working in the fields of management education and ethics and values for more than two decades and I was concerned that the approaches we were taking were not as effective as they need to be. Typically efforts to address values and ethics in business education and leadership development tend to focus on building Awareness and teaching Analysis. That is, we expose future leaders to the kinds of ethical and values conflicts they may encounter, so that they will recognize them and will have considered them in advance. And then we offer them opportunities to learn and apply the models of ethical reasoning – utilitarianism, deontology, etc. – to these situations, so as to discipline their thinking and to prevent them from self-serving or uninformed assumptions about “what is right.”

Now don’t get me wrong. These are useful and important things to do…but they don’t really equip managers and leaders to do the right thing, once they know what it is. I realized we needed to beyond Awareness and Analysis to Action. We needed to identify and learn from the times when business people did, in fact, voice and enact their values. And we needed to build upon the scholarship and research we have about how people in fact make decisions and how people can re-frame choices to make their positions more actionable. We needed to engage in self-assessment, less about values clarification and more about identifying our particular strengths and abilities around voicing values and how we can play to them. And we needed to engage in pre-scripting and practicing our responses to values conflicts, in a supportive peer-coaching environment where we can work in groups to enhance these action plans and scripts.

In short, we needed to shift our thinking and teaching about values-driven leadership from asking the question “What is the right thing to do?” to asking and answering the question “Once I know what I believe is right, how do I get it done?”

So we conducted interviews with managers who shared stories of voicing their values and we reviewed a lot of the relevant research and developed an approach, based on seven pillars articulated in the book, with a companion curriculum that can be used in educational settings, leadership development contexts and/or by individuals in order to build and practice the skills and confidence needed to voice and enact our values.

Morris: The theme of “speaking to power” is common throughout world literature at least since Homer’s Iliad. It certainly intrigued Greek playwrights such as Sophocles, author of the Oedipus Trilogy, and contemporary playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter. How do you explain the widespread and enduring appeal of this theme?

Gentile: Well, I have to think that we all have – at one time or another – felt that our own voice was silenced or under-valued. Who among us did not have the experience as a child of feeling as if our parents just didn’t LISTEN? This parent/child dynamic is probably our first experience of wanting to “speak truth to power”!

But then throughout history we have seen the tyranny of the powerful over the less powerful – think of the history of colonialism or of slavery — and the tragic mistakes made when important information was not “heard” or valued – think of Galileo.

And of course, there is also the perhaps sometimes self-serving sense that we often experience when we believe we know better than our boss, our teacher, our spouse or partner, our friends, our political leaders – if only they would listen to us!

Sometimes this is well founded; sometimes it is not. But the point is that if we learn and practice the ability to share our best and most well-considered positions, effectively and respectfully and constructively and persuasively, our collective choices are likely to be enhanced.

Morris: I wholly agree with you that a clear sense of purpose is among the primary enablers of effective values-based action. However, I also agree with Voltaire who suggested that we “cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those that find it.” In your opinion, how can people best determine what is right?

Gentile: Well, as I mention above, there is no guarantee that each of is always going to be right, but one of the “starting assumptions” of the GVV approach to values-driven leadership is that if we are able to express our positions effectively and get them into the “mix” of the debate, we are likely to come to better collective decisions than we would if whole points of view remain unconsidered.

And beyond that, the GVV process itself requires a structured set of questions and a template for analyzing and preparing our values-driven “scripts.” These questions require us to test our assumptions, to truly see what is at risk for all parties. We engage in this analysis in order to craft the most persuasive scripts but, along the way, this is also a methodology that enables us to test our assumptions.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what are the most effective ways to achieve what must be done, “to make it happen”?

Gentile: Examine positive examples of how others have found ways to voice and enact their values, particularly examples that are “close to home” – that is, in your own industry, company, or profession. Understand your own strengths and find ways to frame your values conflicts in ways that play to them. Consider your own personal history of voicing (and failing to voice) your values: identify what enables you, what disables you, and consider how to maximize the former and minimize or transform the latter. Anticipate the kinds of conflicts that are likely to face you in your particular industry or profession so as to reduce the anxiety that surfaces when you do. Pre-script your responses to them so they become default positions, and practice these responses with trusted peers who can help you refine them.

Morris: In the Introduction, you state your assumption that most people “want to find ways to voice and act on [their] values in the workplace, and do so effectively.” I agree. But as you acknowledge, there can be significant risks. How best to manage them?

Gentile: By anticipating and practicing our responses to these situations, we are less likely to approach them in an ill-considered fashion. We are less likely to present ourselves in a blaming fashion. We are better able to bring the same sort of pragmatic planning and analytical pre-work to our values scripts that we would bring to any other business position that we espouse. This approach enables us to be more reasonable, more respectful, less impulsive and more constructive. Risk cannot be eliminated entirely but that is true in all of life. The trick is to bring our whole arsenal of gifts to bear upon the situation, rather than to think we just need to stand up and give an impassioned little speech that is likely to make us seem less thoughtful and less reasonable.

Morris: You discuss what you call “the thought experiment” in the first chapter. What is it and what does it accomplish?

Gentile: Often we fail to voice and act on our values because, before we even apply our best thinking to developing an action plan, we engage in process of “pre-emptive rationalization.” At some deep level, we anticipate difficulty and resistance so we start to back away from our own instinctive values perspective.

By framing the GVV process as a “thought experiment,” we intend to short circuit this unhelpful cycle. We simply invite individuals to consider “What if” you wanted to voice your values?  How could you do so effectively? By engaging in a thoughtful and constructive analysis and planning process in this “contingent” way, we are able to dismiss – at least for the moment – all those concerns, fears and challenges that would otherwise prevent us from even considering an alternative course of action. We try to effectively free ourselves up to be creative, to think about what might be possible, to come up with truly innovative ways to enact our values-driven positions.

Morris: You assert that the term “values” is “about tone and positioning, as well as literal definition.” How so?

Gentile: I find that when you frame this work as about helping individuals to become more effective, more powerful, more confident and more persuasive at voicing and enacting their OWN values, the whole endeavor becomes less about a constraint on action and rather about helping us to be more of who we would actually like to be, at our best and if we felt it were possible. Rather than positioning this effort as being about “thou shalt not,” it becomes all about “can do!”

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Giving Voice to Values, one of its objectives is to “empower” people to affirm their values much more effectively. What if someone is what Jean Lipman-Blumen characterizes as a “toxic” leader, someone whose behavior is driven by the wrong values?

Gentile: This is such a good question and one of the most frequently raised concerns when I share the GVV approach. And I have spent a good bit of time considering this question myself, but in the end, I would respond that the driving force behind the creation of the GVV approach was the observation that the arguments for values-driven positions in business education and in business practice were too often seen as irrelevant, impractical, even naïve.

The arguments for the behaving in a so-called value-neutral or even amoral fashion were much easier and more comfortable for individuals to express. They were cloaked in the language of the free market and theories of “rational economic actors” driven purely by material self-interest.

The goal of GVV was to give those who wanted to present positions driven by another set of values – those moral values identified by scholars as most widely shared across culture and time – a language, a set of skills and the practice needed to put these positions on a level playing field with more “toxic” positions.

Morris: Based on what you have observed over the years, how best to recruit allies who share the same values to support affirmation of them?

Gentile: It seems that simply being willing to express our views clearly, persuasively and without malice, can be a powerful invitation to others who may be lurking out there, in agreement with us but unsure whether their position is speakable or practical. Being able to point to others who share these values is also very powerful. The point is, as we state in the GVV “Starting Assumptions,” we are not alone; there are most likely others who share our views. But the trick is that we often don’t know who they are or will be until we come out ourselves and express our views.

Morris: In your opinion, what more can – and should – be done in business schools to prepare MBA recipients to have the right values and to give voice to them effectively?

Gentile: I truly believe that when the kind or action-oriented pre-scripting and practice and peer coaching that lies at the heart of the GVV approach is integrated across the curriculum, this will have a transformative effect. Faculty will be able to focus upon teaching students HOW to voice and enact values-driven positions, rather than in moderating debates about WHETHER one should or could do so.

What has been exciting to see is that the GVV curriculum (which is available free to educators at has been picked up rapidly. It has been piloted in well over 100 sites on six continents and increasingly we are receiving expressions of interest from not only MBA programs, but also undergraduate business educators, businesses themselves, non-profits, engineering schools, liberal arts  programs and so on.

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