I understand the temptation to despair. After decades of working at top business schools and with corporations, I have followed the litany of public scandals, and know the ugly realities that never make headlines. There is reason for cynicism. And yet, every day I do work that is driven by hope, and I continue to be inspired by how many people are eager to join me. I am convinced that asking different questions and giving people better strategies for pursuing the good can transform our workplaces and corporate cultures.
Scholars spend a lot of time researching questions such as “Are most of us basically good? Do most of us want to do the right thing? Or do we more often act immorally—or amorally—doing what is most convenient, comfortable, and seemingly in our immediate self-interest?” Perhaps one of the most often cited examples of such a study is Stanley Milgram’s “obedience experiments” from the 1960s1 that explored whether, and under what conditions, subjects would go along with instructions even when they conflicted with their own—assumed—values. In the ’70s, Philip Zimbardo famously had to discontinue his Stanford Prison Experiments2 due to concerns about the ethics of the design and potential impacts on participants who, as in Milgram’s study, seemed able to go along with the roles and pressures of the experiment’s format even when it violated norms of ethical and compassionate behavior. And more recently, behavioral ethicists and psychologists like Daniel Ariely3 have studied the human tendency toward deception, and there is a whole raft of research on the limitations and the impacts—sometimes counter to intention—of various incentive schemes.
As useful and important as it is to understand how and why we tend to behave one way or the other in different circumstances, too often this research seems to simply support the idea that, left to our own devices, we don’t really have much of a moral compass—at least not one that we act upon. Too often, in the business education and organizational training settings where I have spent most of my career, sharing these insights about behavioral tendencies can be, at best, fruitless, and even worse, they can reinforce the idea that we simply can’t expect ethics and values-driven behaviors in business. Some research suggests that teaching folks about decision-making biases and tendencies can make us more cognizant of these propensities in others, but still leave us unaware of our own vulnerabilities.4 And even more troubling, without offering some alternative behavioral strategies, this research can feed a disabling cynicism in individuals who—we hope—might otherwise strive to enact their values. That is, if we cannot expect ethical behavior—or even rational behavior—from others who are driven by cognitive biases and seemingly self-serving, fear-driven, or merely convenient short-term motivations, then what is the point of trying to act ethically ourselves?
These are the kinds of questions that 20 years ago led to what I call my “crisis of faith.” I had worked in the field of ethics education in graduate business schools for several decades and was feeling that my work was at best, futile, and at worst, hypocritical. You might say that I was losing hope in the potential efficacy of education and training for ethical behavior in business—or in our wider lives. It seemed that the ways that we taught about these issues—by presenting thorny ethical case studies and then asking students and employees to consider “what would you do?”—was at best an exercise in platitudes and at worst, a sort of schooling for sophistry. That is, discussants would find ways to rationalize and justify almost any behavior. It seemed that folks would leave these conversations both more confused and less empowered. That didn’t really feel like the way I wanted to spend my time and efforts.
But around that time, I had a number of experiences that led to the development of Giving Voice To Values (GVV), an innovative approach to values-driven leadership development. I began to see research in a variety of disciplines—psychology, cognitive neurosciences, etc.—that suggested that if you truly want to have an impact on people’s behavior, then pre-scripting, rehearsal, and peer coaching can be effective strategies. Rather than focusing exclusively on when and why people behave badly, I started to focus on how people behaved well. And instead of thinking only about ethical decision-making, I started to focus on ethical action. I began to ask a new question. Rather than “what is the right thing to do in a particular situation?” (an important question, to be sure, but one that was already an ever present focus in ethics education and training), I started to ask “once I know what I believe is right, how can I get it done, effectively?”
That is, instead of standing in a place of skepticism or even cynicism, I began to stand in a place of hope. This re-framing was supported by behavioral ethics research that suggested that when we confront values conflicts, rather than sitting down to do a pro and con list, or to ask what John Rawls or Aristotle would say, we tend to react emotionally, automatically—doing what feels possible—and then we rationalize post-hoc that it was the right thing to do, or perhaps the only thing we could do.5 If this observation is true, then our usual approach to ethics training by presenting ethical dilemmas and asking “what would you do?” would simply trigger this automatic response. But I wanted actually to “re-wire” this automatic response. So, I created a new pedagogical approach—you might call it a pedagogy of hope. I asked, “How could you get the right thing done? What would you say and do? What data would you need to gather? To whom would you speak, in what sequence and in what context? And what objections or push-back would you face, and then how would you respond to those? And how might you re-frame the issue to more likely influence your target audiences?” And so on.
I called this sort of case study the “Giving Voice To Values Thought Experiment.” I wanted to give learners the permission, even the requirement, to place themselves in the position of one who has decided to act on their values and then to apply all their skills and insights to crafting action plans and scripts that could be successful. By framing the question this way, we reduce the stress, enabling learners to more freely tap their creativity. Rather than worrying that their values-based responses may seem naïve, now they are invited to share how sophisticated they are by coming up with promising strategies for doing the things that otherwise may feel impractical or even impossible. And importantly, learners then share these plans and scripts with their peers and collaborate to make them even more likely to be effective. The idea is that, by working together to plan and voice these approaches, they create a new habit, a sort of “Moral Muscle Memory.” And the many case examples that we developed as part of this curriculum illustrate the many different strategies that individuals might use, depending on the situation as well as the abilities, personality, and comfort levels of the individual facing the challenge.
Once this approach was published and shared via books, curriculum, MOOCs, online programs, and so on, it has been stunning to see the wide and rapid adoption of GVV6 internationally, across professions, and in organizational practice as well as educational settings. This reception—and the responses of the many audiences when they hear about GVV—illustrates the wide and deep hunger for such a hopeful approach. And increasingly, faculty are also following and writing about the positive impacts of this pedagogy.7 I have found that most people want to believe that values-driven action is possible, but we don’t want to be naïve or foolish, or even to place ourselves at a systematic disadvantage. GVV offers an approach and a framing that can work against these concerns and fears, and that can also help us to develop the skills and confidence to enact our values effectively. That is, GVV is about more than being “righteous;” it is about righteous actions that are also effective.
In his very influential article on “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems,” the organizational theorist Karl Weick counters this fear of naivete when he writes: “ . . . to be naïve is to start with fewer preconceptions.” He goes on to argue that optimism is not necessarily naïve when he writes: “We justify what we do, not by belief in its efficacy but by an acceptance of its necessity. . . . To view optimism as a duty rather than as something tied to unsteady expectations of success is to position oneself in sufficient variety of places with sufficient confidence that events may be set in motion that provide substance for that hope.”8
I find this an inspiring framing of our work toward a more ethical world: that is, that our duty is to be hopeful enough to drive creativity, commitment, and action toward values-driven choices. Too often, the conversations I see in organizations are driven by a too narrowly drawn vision of what is possible or permissible. My fondest hope is that the “Giving Voice To Values Thought Experiment”—what if I were to act on my values? How could I be effective?—will engender the hope and the confidence that we have more choices than we may have feared and that values-driven choices are both necessary and possible.
- Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (Perennial Classics), 2009.
- Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House), 2007.
- Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves (Harper), 2012.
- M. H. Bazerman, G. Loewenstein and D. A. Moore, “Why Good Accountants Do Bad Audits,” Harvard Business Review (November 2002): 96–102.
- Jonathan Haidt, “The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment,” Psychological Review (October 2001, 108(4)” 814–34.
- GivingVoiceToValuesTheBook.com, GivingVoiceToValues.org.
- See publications noted at GivingVoiceToValuesTheBook.com
- Karl E. Weick, “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems,” American Psychologist, January 1984, 47, 48.