We’ve all faced situations in which — faced with long odds, tight deadlines, a challenging environment or limited resources — we’ve marshalled our problem-solving skills and figured out how to do what needs to be done.
“Businesspeople are constantly being told that their ideas will be impossible to execute — that they’ll never be able to sell a certain product, operate in a new region or attract a different customer base,” says Darden Professor of Practice Mary Gentile, creator and director of the values-driven “Giving Voice to Values” (GVV) business curriculum. “Confronting such a challenge is usually when they start getting creative — reframing the situation, identifying the people and resources they need, and finding ways to achieve their goals.” Indeed, she points out, it’s precisely such action-oriented skills that educators seek to develop within business school students.
Not Just What — How
But Gentile says that when it comes to dealing with ethically challenging situations, educators have traditionally taken a starkly different tack. “Generally, when we approach ethical challenges, we stop at the point at which we figure out what we ought to do, then tell people to just be brave and go do it,” she says. “Traditional ethics education doesn’t offer people much practical training in terms of how to actually execute their ethical plans.”
It’s this critically important skill set that Gentile’s seven-year-old GVV curriculum offers. “For most people, the challenge isn’t figuring out what’s right, because most people already know what’s right,” Gentile explains. “The challenge is figuring out how to get the right thing done.”
The first step in that process, she says, is helping people see that it’s almost always possible to do something — even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “It’s incredibly empowering for people to realize that they have choices, and that taking ethical action isn’t an all or nothing proposition,” Gentile says. Rather, just as with other kinds of challenges, it’s about taking realistic, contextually appropriate, incremental steps in the right direction.
As an example, Gentile offers the story of an ethically conscientious Indian entrepreneur who bought an India-based prepared foods manufacturer. Struggling financially, the business was mired in corruption, plagued by demands for bribes from local health and safety inspectors, and at odds with the Indian government over labor law violations.
“When the new owner came in, he told his employees that things were going to change — that the company was really going to clean up its act,” she says. At the same time, she points out, the owner was utterly pragmatic in his approach: The company laid the foundations for change; he reorganized inspection procedures such that they circumvented opportunities for bribe requests; and he committed to closing down the factory for a few days or weeks, until the inspectors realized their demands for payoffs would prove fruitless.
“This entrepreneur did two or three of these small things, none of which, alone, solved the problem — but which together started to change the culture and the relationship between the employees and the management,” Gentile explains, noting that the entrepreneur also wisely cemented local support for the company by investing in broadly beneficial community programs.
The lesson? “It’s not about taking great risks or falling on your sword in the name of doing the right thing,” Gentile says. “It’s about developing moral competence and saying, ‘Let’s reframe the situation and build the right skills in order to get the right things done.’”
Around the World
The approach has proven itself successful across cultures. The curriculum, which has been used in thousands of organizations around the world, features culturally relevant case studies, candid conversations and examples of success. Practical, un-preachy and contextually flexible, Gentile has used the framework to, for example:
# Help Asian businesspeople figure out how they can reconcile their local gift-giving traditions with global anti-bribery regulations.
# Counsel African executives seeking to communicate with their Europe-based headquarters about conflicting local and corporate directives.
# Inspire Russian fraud inspectors to think about what initial steps they might take to enact their values within their notoriously difficult ethical environment.
“Taking ethical action might take the form of doing some additional research and presenting it to higher-ups; crafting a compelling memo for your boss; or even taking a colleague with you to a meeting, because you know people are more likely to listen to the colleague than to you,” Gentile says. “The key is to think strategically about what you can realistically do to meet your ethical goals, given the realities of your context.”
Of course, organizations, too, can play a key role in making sure employees feel supported in voicing their ethical concerns. Gentile says that having senior executives talk about times when they’ve grappled with ethical dilemmas can serve to offer valuable examples of effective ethical action, as well as help employees understand that such situations are neither uncommon nor easy — and that the organization’s leadership is committed to resolving them.
Another effective organizational action, she says, is having higher-ups clearly enumerate the best ways to communicate with them about potentially problematic situations. “It can be tremendously helpful to have executives lay out some guidelines for what would help them to really hear what employees are saying, so that they can start engaging in problem-solving, rather than just feeling blamed or accused,” Gentile says. “That might mean asking employees to make an appointment in advance, bring along some supporting data, or come equipped with ideas or solutions — whatever it takes to start a productive conversation.”
“We’re living in the real world,” Gentile says. “The steps we take — even if they’re only incremental — won’t always work, and we’re certainly not always going to get everything we want. But that doesn’t mean you have to abdicate the whole process,” she says.