The following post is an excerpt from a recent Leadership Leverage radio show. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Today we’ll be exploring the topic of values.

And perhaps as important is the topic of values as it pertains to the individual leader.

In other words how effectively can you stand up for your values when pressured by your boss, customers or shareholders to do the opposite?

In a larger sense the ability to voice your values becomes the litmus test for your true ability to lead and develop followership.

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Why is it that as leaders we often know the right thing to do but have trouble implementing it?

How can we find our values’ voice and become a more effective leader?

What can companies do to better foster and reinforce value-based leadership?

To help us navigate this journey, our guest is the popular and distinguished Dr. Mary Gentile.

Currently Dr. Gentile is the director of Giving Voice to Values, a business curriculum launched by the Aspen Institute and Yale with ongoing support from Babson College.

Giving Voice to Values is a pioneering approach to values-driven leadership that has been featured in such magazines as the Financial Times, The Harvard Business Review, Strategy and Business, and in Business Week and is being piloted in over 100 business schools and organizations globally.

Dr. Gentile also recently released a book on the same topic: “Giving Voice To Values: How To Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right”.

You can read more about Dr. Gentile and her book here:


Giving Voice To Values

Dr. Denker: Mary I’m curious to know how did you first participate in developing this notion of giving voice to values. What led you down this path?

Dr. Gentile: I’ve been working in the area of business, values and ethics – and the social impact of business – for several decades now.

But a number of years ago around the late 90’s, turn of the century, I experienced what I like to call a kind of crisis of faith.

I began to wonder if teaching ethics in business schools was ethical.

For me this grew out of the fact that we would [have] these long conversations with students, we would examine these challenging values conflicts in business, some global challenges and people would go back and forth about what the right thing to do was.

But in the end at some point students might say, “Mary this is all well and good but in the real world you can’t really act this way, you can’t really do these things. The pressures on you are so great that you won’t be able to behave in alignment with your values.”

That was an answer that I found truly troubling and I actually stepped back from the work a little while and started to reconsider what I was doing.

And the book and the curriculum I’ve developed around “Giving Voice to Values” is really my response to that.

Knowing Your Values And Being Able To Act On Them, Are Two Different Things

Dr. Denker: So it was really this practicality aspect that drove you to say I need to look at this a little bit deeper?

Dr. Gentile: Exactly.

I started to feel like it wasn’t just a matter of looking deeper but it was actually a matter of asking a different question.

What we tend to ask when we talk about business ethics and business values – both in business education but also in a corporate training context or even in our own lives – is we tend to do two things:

  • We tend to say, “I need to raise my, and my students, and my employees’ awareness about business ethics. I need for them to recognize these ethical challenges and values conflicts when they encounter them in the workplace.”

So we develop case studies and stories, and readings, and policies, and rules and we try and pre-warn them about all these things.

  • The other thing we try and do is we try and practice analysis.

And the question we’re asking there is, “What is the right thing to do?” And we share different models of ethical reasoning and we help people think through the challenges they can face because sometimes they’re really quite thorny and complex.

I think both of those things are good things to do. But they’re answering the question, “What is right?” and whether is it feasible to do it.

Once You Know What’s Right, How Do You Get It Done?

Two Choices Staircase Image

Dr. Gentile:  What we weren’t asking in business education, and I think often in corporate training is, “Once you know what you think is right, how do you get it done? What do you say? To whom? And what would they say back? And then what do you say?”

And I started to think, that’s the piece that we need to add.

It’s not that we weren’t doing a good job of addressing those other issues, but we were not focusing on action and that’s what I was trying to get at.

Dr. Denker: Well clearly I would argue that by the time one reaches a management role, one does know the difference between right and wrong. So what is it that often stops us from acting on our values at work?

Dr. Gentile: Well I think it’s a number of different things.

I actually agree with you that in a lot of the most egregious cases, the cases that make it to the front pages of the newspapers, often they’re not only unethical, often they’re even illegal.

So they’re often clear to a lot of us.

There are those issues that are complicated, that are grey areas that are kind of wrong versus the wrong kinds of choices.

Those are the ones that I think we spend a lot of time analyzing in business schools.

But I think the ones you’re talking about and the ones I’m talking about where it’s fairly clear, there’s a different set of factors that come into play for why we sometimes don’t act on them.

I think one of the things is simply what we call adult socialization.

The idea being that you may have learned what the right thing to do is. “That’s your mother and father’s knee,” as people will often say.

Then when you get into an organization there are a set of norms and a set of pressures.

As one professor I interviewed referred to it, he said, “You learn the professional rationalizations.”

And what he meant by that were things like, “The market made me do it,” or, “Meritocracy is such that it doesn’t really matter. The best people are always going to make it to the top. I don’t have to worry about that.”

Or, “I don’t have to worry about the impacts of some of my choices because the market will already take that into account and discount for them, so it’s not going to have to be my worry.”

So there’s a lot of professional rationalizations and norms, and pressures.

Facing Down The Pressures Of Personal Loyalty

Dr. Gentile: I think beyond that the more mundane and the more common and the more everyday things are just pressures of groupthink and time pressures and the pressures of the short term quarterly financial reports versus longer term returns and considerations.

Even the pressure of personal loyalty. “You’re my buddy and you’re asking me to do something.”

Dr. Denker: Oh absolutely. And that’s a big one, isn’t it?

Dr. Gentile: Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Denker: Because that loyalty issue gets back to power of relationships.

In power relationships it plays a huge impact on what one makes and the job role that one has and one’s future.

Dr. Gentile: Exactly.

So the loyalty questions, they take different forms.

They can take the form of “You’re talking about power in terms of if my boss is asking me to do something, there’s certain kinds of organizational power and leverage.”

There’s also the sort of interpersonal loyalty where, “You’re my friend and we’ve worked together on this team for a long time.” That’s a different kind of influence but it can be just as powerful if not more so.

Why We Feel We Can’t Do What Our Values Direct Us To Do

Dr. Denker: Do you see a common set of excuses out there?

Dr. Gentile: Yeah. Actually there’s a lot of, I call them reasons and rationalizations, for why we feel we can’t do what our values direct us to do.

There’s a lot of them.

But there’s four categories that I see coming up most frequently, different iterations of them and lots of different situations.

The Four Categories Of Excuses

  • Outdoor Billboard Saying You Have No ExcusesOne of them is the idea that, “Everybody does it.”

That’s a standard operating procedure.” And the follow on of that is that, “Everybody is already expecting it. It’s built into the system so you don’t need to worry about it.”

  • A second one that we hear a lot is, “It’s not a big deal, it’s not material,” if you want to use the language of accounting.

“It’s not going to make a big enough difference in the life of the individual employee and in the life of the customer, in the financial returns that we need to worry about it.”

  • A third one is, “It’s not my responsibility.

This is something that my boss needs to worry about or internal audit needs to worry about or R&D, research and design, needs to worry about.” Or, “It’s something that supply management folks should be paying attention to.”

  • The fourth category that we see a lot is one that you and I have already talked a little bit about which is this whole issue of loyalty.

“On the one hand I want to be honest, I want to demonstrate integrity. But on the other hand I don’t want to ‘betray’ a friend or a boss or a colleague.”

Dr. Denker: I think everyone of us who’s been a part of an organization, regardless of what size, has seen these as you term them, rationalizations – I call them excuses – play out. “Everyone does it. It’s not material. It’s not my responsibility.” That’s throwing it over the wall as we once said in a corporation I worked.

Dr. Gentile: Right.

How To Develop Your Voice

Develop Your Voice MicrophoneDr. Denker: I know in your writings that you’ve done, specifically in your book, you discussed the importance of voice.

Can you share with us what you mean by having a voice?

Dr. Gentile: Yeah, absolutely. This is kind of an interesting idea for me.

It’s not something that I started with when I was working in this field of business ethics.

But a number of experiences and some research that I saw brought me to this place, and I guess the most compelling was some research that I saw around more courage and altruism.

But the one that stuck out for me, the one that really resonated for me probably because I was an educator was that the people who had behaved in this way, who had demonstrated this kind of altruism and courage, reported that at an earlier point in their lives, usually as young adults, they had the experience with someone older, more senior, respected – it might had been a boss, it might had been a teacher or a parent or a mentor – but they’d had the experience of rehearsing out loud, “What would you do if?” and then anticipating certain kinds of moral conflicts.

And what seemed to be interesting about it was that they had done two things.

They had literally prescripted themselves, they identified words but they also said them out loud.

They said them out loud in front of someone that they respected and trusted, and this just seemed really interesting to me.

I thought, “Wow we don’t do this in education.” A lot of what we do is almost the opposite. A lot of times we rehearse all the reasons why it’s so hard to voice and act on your values.

Dr. Denker: So Mary, why is saying it out loud an important dimension here?

Dr. Gentile: It’s interesting. There’s a lot of research now coming from lots of different fields – from the fields of social psychology, the fields of cognitive neuroscience.

There’s also just our own sort of personal experiences and common sense. But basically at the heart of it is rehearsal. It’s practice.

I started thinking about that and I was thinking, a lot of times when we don’t voice our values it’s because all those rationalizations that we were talking about a few minutes ago, those come flooding into our minds.

In fact I tend to call them preemptive rationalizations because we’re aware of those before anything else and sometimes they stop us from even thinking about what the alternative is.

But if you in fact create opportunities where you have the space and the time to say out loud the other arguments, the other positions the idea is that you are creating a kind of muscle memory, that you are rehearsing them, that they’re becoming more of a default and that it’s easier for you to go there when you in fact are in those kinds of situations.

Pillar 1 – Acknowledging Choice

Dr. Denker: So Mary, for a leader reading this, how do they develop their voice? What might be the first two or three steps to effectively get them to do that if they want to?

Dr. Gentile: Well I think there are a number of things.

When I interviewed people and asked them basically the simple question, I said, “Tell me about a time when you encountered a values conflict in the workplace and how you handled it.”

I tried to learn from the stories that they told me and one of the interesting things is that a number of times when I would ask people that question, they would say, “Okay I’ll tell you about a time when I voiced my values in the workplace but let me also tell about some times when I didn’t.”

They were doing that I think partly because they wanted to be honest.

They didn’t want to present themselves as perfect.

They didn’t want to suggest that this was an easy thing to do, which clearly it’s not.

But there also [were] some interesting lessons in that.

Out of those interviews I started identifying a set of principles or pillars that seemed to help people to be more ready, more equipped, more able to voice their values.

  • One of them is simply acknowledging that choice.

We actually developed an exercise which is being used around the world to really get [effect].

It’s called A Tale of Two Stories.

We invite participants whether they’re students or executives or whoever is involved to think about a time when you encountered a values conflict in the workplace and you found a way to voice and act on your values.

Then you reflect on it and you ask them questions about, “What motivated me? What made it easier? What made it harder? How do I feel about it?”

Then we ask you to think about a time when you encountered a values conflict in the workplace and you did not voice and act on your values.

Answer those same questions: “What motivated you? What enabled you? What made it harder? How do you feel about it?”

First of all I have not encountered anyone yet who can’t tell me both kinds of stories. So in other words we all have in fact voiced and acted on our values in some situations.

So we all have these examples when we did and we all have examples when we didn’t.

What’s interesting is when people start talking about what made it easier and what made it harder, we learned several things.

We learned that some of the things are pretty widely shared.

Everybody will say, “If I have a boss that’s open to people suggesting different points of view, it’s easier to do this. I’m in a workplace where there are models for this kind of behavior, it’s easier to do this.”

Other people, there will be certain things that make it harder and kind of the reverse of those.

And those kinds of things, the ones that are common to everyone, that’s your blueprint as a leader, that’s the kind of organization that you want to build to make it easier for people to voice and act consistently with their values. But then there’s another set of things that are more unique to me or unique to you Rob.

Pillar 2 – Play To Your Strengths

So if I’m an introvert there are certain things that make it harder for me. I don’t like to argue for example.

On the other hand if I’m a real risk taker, then it’s harder for me to have to take the cautious route, to have to take the conservative route.

Those are interesting things to identify for another reason.

Usually we do that kind of self-assessment thinking, “Well you need to know these things about yourself.” So we’re wagging our fingers and saying, “You better be careful because you know that you’re a risk taker and it might mean that you’ll be less than cautious in these situations.”

But I say, “No. No. Let’s look at it entirely differently. Let’s look at these characteristics as our strengths. Let’s figure out how to frame the ethical or value conflicts we encounter in a way that they play to our strengths.”

The reason I do that is because when I was interviewing people I remember talking to a gentleman who was telling me a story about voicing his values in a real estate deal.

I said, “How did you bring yourself to do that? How did you find the courage to do that?” And he said, “Well you know I’ve always been a risk taker. I’ve always been kind of an assertive guy. This felt like it was who I am.”

And then I was interviewing another person who was talking about being in a situation where they stood up to somebody who was asking them to share proprietary information and I said, “How did you do that? Where did you find the ability to do that?” And she said, “Well you know I’ve always been a cautious person. I’ve always been kind of fearful and this seems like the safest route.”

I thought it’s very interesting. Someone else might have looked at that same situation and thought that it was safer to give in to the person who was pressuring you. So what I realize is you need to frame the conflict in a way that feels consistent with who you are so that you can play to your strengths.

Dr. Denker: Oh it’s being true to yourself.

Dr. Gentile: Being true to yourself but not just in terms of what you value but in terms of how you act on that value, how you voice that value because I’m going to be more likely to voice my value if I found a way to do so that feels like I know how to do that.

I’m better at asking questions for example than I am at arguing.

So if I can find a way to do this that involves asking the really pointed, clever, helpful, revealing questions, I’m going to be more likely to bring myself to do it.

Albert Einstein Quote About Values

Pillar 3 – Normalizing Values

Dr. Denker: You covered two of these. You covered the pillar of “choice” and you covered the pillar of “play to your strengths”.

What other pillar is important for our readers to know?

Dr. Gentile: Well I think one of the ones that is most important and was actually surprising to me when I first started doing the conversations and the research that led up to this approach was something I call normalization or normalizing values conflicts.

It really kind of struck me most when I was interviewing a gentleman who was sharing a conflict that he had encountered and had to do with being honest with some colleagues he was working with.

He was involved with merges and acquisitions.

His firm was representing the acquiring firm and the people he was working with were executives from the firm that was being acquired.

Understand he’d been working with these guys over a number of months now and they had developed working relationships and even friendships and a bit of trust, and he was the intermediary consultant.

A couple of these guys turned to him and said, “Okay you can be straight with us, when this transaction goes forward we know it will mean changes in jobs. Are we going to lose our jobs?”

It was funny when I was interviewing him because the first thing he said was, “Mary I lied.”

And then he paused and he said, “Instinctively I lied.”

But then he said he went home and he thought about it and he thought, “If I continue in this work I’m going to be asked questions like this all the time.”

“I love my work,” he said. “I like doing this and I’m going to be asked these questions and I need to figure out how I should go about it. Do I want to just continue to lie every time it comes up?” which some people do and they just defend it by saying, “I’m protecting proprietary information and my fiduciary responsibility to my employer.”

And there’s some validity to that.

He said, “But on the other hand, when I started thinking about it, I also have a personal duty to people that I’ve built a trusting relationship with.”

And he said, “I was torn. And then at a certain point I said, ‘You know what, this is a normal part of doing this kind of business. This is going to come up a lot.’”

He said, “Once I thought about it that way, I didn’t have that kind of glaring headlight feeling where I just froze and instinctively lied. And instead I thought, ‘You know I could think about this just the way I think about any other business problem and think is there an answer that will optimize things for everyone involved.’ So I spent a little bit of time, not that much, but I thought about it and I anticipated it. And I thought, ‘You know there is an answer I can give when this comes up which both is true to my fiduciary responsibility but is also honest and in fact useful to my listener.’”

So he said, “I came up with a little script for myself where I explained that even if I knew the answer you all know I can’t share that kind of information. I have a responsibility. However, I’ve been in these kinds of transactions many times before and there’s certain things I’ve learned. And here are the things if I were in your shoes I would be doing to make myself most protected no matter what happened.”

He came up with a set of suggestions that he could give these people that were more than just [the runaround] that also had some real useful ideas in them because he had in fact been in this situation before but that also did not involve him saying one way or the other what was going to happen.

And he finally said, “You know someone could say that I was just covering my ass because I didn’t really tell them, but on the other hand they knew I couldn’t.

So what I wanted to do was give them an answer that was respectful to them because that’s what I owed them. I owed them a respectful and useful answer.”

To me that was an interesting solution and it came because he normalized the situation.

He said, “You know what this isn’t such a big deal and if I think about it in advance I can deal with it.”

So that’s one of the principles we realize is that when people anticipate the situations but not just anticipate them in terms of, “Oh my God I’m going to run into these situations [woe is me],” but anticipate in a way that allows them to think clearly about them as solvable business problems, that in fact reduces the anxiety and allows people to draw on a greater set of resources in terms of their own skills to try and handle them.

Dr. Denker: Very much really some of the basic foundations in sports psychology.

Dr. Gentile: Exactly. And that’s why I use the example around the self-defense class and I talk to people about when you’re learning a sport you break it down into pieces, you practice those pieces, it becomes muscle memory. So that’s another one of the principles.

Pillar 4 – Purpose

I think another principle I want to make sure I have a chance to mention since this is a program on leadership is purpose.

One of the things I found when I talk to people is that part of what enabled people to both find the courage in themselves to voice and act on their values but also to come up with compelling and persuasive arguments and action plans was when they defined their purpose in their work broadly and explicitly.

In other words when they tried to define what they were doing as not necessarily just maximizing this quarter’s return but creating a sustainable business.

Dr. Denker: Do you have an example?

Dr. Gentile: Yeah. It’s interesting. I remember talking to a guy who had just been promoted to CFO in his firm.

Just as he was taking on the new role, his senior colleagues came to him and said, “We need to adjust our financial reporting this quarter because of some unexpected changes.”

And the gentleman who was being promoted to CFO felt that the adjustments crossed the line. He felt they were over the line, and he was saying, “Here I am in this situation where I can say, ‘Gee I’m just getting into this position. These guys are going to be my colleagues. I need to be able to work with them. Do I want to really irritate them just as I’m moving into this role?’”

“Don’t I want to just go along and I can work on things later?”  But on the other hand he was saying, “But if I do that now I’m setting a pattern for who I am in this position.”

So he said, “How do I want to define my purpose here? Do I want to define my purpose in terms of making the easiest and most painless entry into this position or do I want to define my purpose as actually leading this organization in a new and important direction around integrity?”

And he decided to do the latter.

He actually decided to launch a program within the company – I think they called it “integrity is the bottom line” or something – but it was a program specifically around getting employees to understand how important it was to report information accurately and honestly in all situations.

Because he was launching this program throughout the company, it kind of became moot whether or not he could acquiesce to his colleague’s request.

A lot of times defining your purpose broadly in that way allows you to be more courageous. It also gives you different arguments to draw on.

A lot of this whole approach is about framing situations in a way that it makes easier for me to do what I would like to in the best of all possible circumstances.

One of the ideas that’s kind of become clear to me in doing this work is that if you practice some of these principles and you actually practice some of these scripts and these ways of thinking about your business challenges that you’re becoming more morally competent I like to say.

You have all those four reasons and rationalizations I mentioned earlier in the show, you actually have some responses to those arguments that come more readily to you and that you are able to be just as creative and just as persuasive around an ethical issue as you might be around trying to sell a new business idea or a new product or a new organizational plan.

So if you become more morally competent in that way, I think you actually don’t have to be quite as heroically morally courageous.

Giving Voice To Values – Free Curriculum

Dr. Denker: Mary you were talking before [about] this whole issue of how one develops competence in giving voice to their values in the workplace.

In the time that remaining I want you to talk about this curriculum that you’ve developed that really teaches leaders within organizations how to do that.

Dr. Gentile: Actually this whole idea Giving Voice to Value…I was working with a number of leading business schools around the world and we’d increasingly hear the lament that what [weren’t] teaching in business schools, even though I knew a lot of wonderful faculty who were teaching both responsible business and business ethics.

And so I created this curriculum.

It’s all available online…free –

Giving Voices To Values Book CoverWe make it free to educators.

It’s designed to be flexible and modular. You can go and find an exercise or a piece of material that would fit in your finance class or your operations class or your management class. Or you can design a whole course around it if you want.

But I designed it to be very flexible.

I started thinking it would only be used in MBA programs but now I’m getting requests that it be used in undergraduate institutions and executive programs.

And I’m starting to be approached by corporations who are interested in adapting it for their use non-profit – schools of engineering, liberal arts.

So people I think at heart recognize that it’s not rocket science.

This approach really is simply saying, “Let’s ask a different question.”

Instead of asking, “What is the right thing to do?” or whether we can get it done, we ask, “How would you get it done?”

Once you know what you think is right, then people are able to really think in creative ways.

We’ve drawn on social science research. We’ve drawn on management research. We’ve drawn on case examples and we’ve tried to create a set of tools for people to create persuasive scripts and action plans.

Dr. Denker: Well I certainly enjoyed the conversation today with you. I learned a lot.

I trust most of the listeners have too. Again I commend you for the gratitude that you have and the work that you’ve done to develop this set of curriculum around giving voice to values, to put it out there today for free so that people can use it and can learn from it to become more effective.

So I want to thank you for being part of the program Leadership Leverage.

Dr. Gentile: Thank you, Rob.

Moral Compass App image courtesy of University of San Francisco

2-Way Staircase courtesy of Flickr

No Excuses Billboard courtesy of Flickr

Microphone image courtesy of Flickr

Einstein image courtesy of Flickr