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From What’s Possible to What’s Real—and Back Again

By asking our students to “rewire” their emotional reactions to complex social problems, we help them find common ground and work toward solutions.

A dozen years ago, when I first developed the Giving Voice To Values (GVV) pedagogy and curriculum for values-driven leadership, I thought the key challenge to those of us teaching ethics in business schools was about moving from an exclusively cognitive approach to teaching ethics to an action-oriented one. That is, when we tried to integrate questions of ethics, responsible management, sustainability, and deep purpose into the curriculum, we typically focused on decision-making frameworks—models of ethical reasoning borrowed from philosophy, law, and regulatory guidelines.

In this cognitive approach, we often asked students to debate ethical questions. While useful for building rigorous and consistent thinking, this strategy presented two inherent challenges. First, too often, these debates set up ethical dilemmas as false dichotomies, framing the pursuit of purpose-led, ethical management as a zero-sum proposition. Businesses can be profitable or they can be environmentally responsible; they can successfully gain access to global markets or they can operate without corruption. We tended to ask whether businesses could be ethical rather than how.        

Second, this approach ignored lessons presented by behavioral ethics. We have learned that when we face values-based conflicts, we typically will act automatically and emotionally, and then rationalize, post-hoc, why our choices were the “right” ones or the only possible ones. Asking students to focus on whether a choice is right or wrong does not interrupt this emotional response.

Within the GVV framework, we instead invite students to “rewire” that automatic connection. Rather than ask, “What is the right thing to do?” in a way that assumes a single answer, we ask them to explore a much more complex question: “What if I wanted to take a particular course of action? How could I most effectively get that done?”

By flipping the question, we invite students to go beyond their analyses of ethical scenarios to engage in pre-scripting, action planning, rehearsal, and peer coaching around values-driven choices. The idea is to help them develop a sort of “moral muscle memory,” so that when they encounter these sorts of decisions in the future, their automatic and emotional responses will be wider and deeper. They will have more arrows in their ethical and emotional quivers, and they will feel as if it is more possible to take ethical action.

A New Dimension of Ethical Teaching

The GVV approach has been deployed all over the world, in business schools and in companies. It has been used in the U.S. military, the Australian police force, in NGOs, and increasingly in other professions such as law, healthcare, and engineering. Emerging research and case studies demonstrate its effectiveness.

However, as I consider the challenges facing managers and leaders today in business and other arenas, this focus on action—the “Giving Voice to Values thought experiment,” as I call it—has more implications. Previously, I sought to move our pedagogy from focusing exclusively on building awareness of ethical issues and teaching tools for analysis of complex questions, to adding in a focus on rehearsal for action. Today, I think we need to add yet another dimension: We need to prepare future business managers and leaders not simply for a world where their employees, colleagues, and competitors disagree about the course of action they should take to solve a particular problem. We must prepare them for a world where people disagree about the nature of their reality and the very world they are occupying.


We need to prepare future business leaders for a world where their employees, colleagues, and competitors disagree not simply about the course of action they should take, but about the nature of the very world they are occupying.

For example, during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, people disagreed about how to price life-saving drugs. Today, people disagree about whether life-saving interventions are even needed, as in the case with the COVID-19 vaccine. Previously, people disagreed about whether scientists were overreacting about the impending effects of climate change; today, even as we are witnessing those effects, some people are questioning whether what we are experiencing is real.

This disagreement about the nature of our reality is, of course, not new, but people’s vehemence in debates, their imperviousness to evidence, and their mistrust of expertise seem to have reached new heights. I believe this is a core challenge for management education, especially when it comes to teaching ethics and building values-driven organizations. And I believe that the “action” focus of the GVV pedagogy is hugely helpful in addressing this challenge.

On the Same Side of Values-Based Leadership

The GVV pedagogy frames its objectives around core values that tend to be widely shared. That is, GVV places all students on the same side of larger questions based on shared values—it gives them a common purpose, if you will. From there, they can engage in discussions of implementation, rather than enter into ideological debates about what is real. The pedagogy presents a protocol for allowing all voices to be heard and understood without anyone having to abdicate the core, shared values upon which the solution is to be based.

Let me share an example from my own experience: In the mid-1990s, I developed the first course on diversity and inclusion offered at Harvard Business School. One class session was devoted to the subject of affirmative action. I knew that this would be a contentious topic with my group of second-year MBA students, most of whom were white and largely invested in the belief that business is a meritocracy where anyone who has the talent and drive can succeed.

I decided to raise the topic indirectly, using what I call “a potholder” to help students handle the heat: a peripherally related case study that discussed the Federal Communication Commission’s efforts to diversify access to spectrum rights (the rights to radio frequencies) by means of a lottery. The hope was that a lottery would give smaller and minority-owned businesses a better chance to gain a share of the radio waves than a traditional bidding process. Although this process was not directly analogous to affirmative action, I hoped it would ease students into a discussion about different approaches to fairness in the distribution of access and goods.

But I was wrong. The students were immediately onto me, and they were unwilling to jump into the discussion. They must have felt it was a sort of trap, and that it was too dangerous to delve into the topic more deeply. Even though class participation accounted for a large portion of their grades, my students were silent. I had to change course.


Exercises that help students find common ground provide ways for them to engage in conversations and collaborative problem solving without judging and excluding others in the room at the outset.

So, I drew a vertical line down the center of the blackboard and asked them to pretend for a moment that they were all vehement opponents of affirmative action. In this case, on what values would they base their opposition? Freed from having to “own” the position, they more easily suggested values such as fairness, meritocracy, and justice—I wrote these words down on one side of the line.

Then, I asked them to pretend that they were dedicated supporters of affirmative action: What values would drive that position? I wrote their list on the other side of the line—and, of course, as you have likely guessed, the list was the same.

At that point I turned to the class and said, “Okay, having generated these lists does not make this conversation easy. But it does illustrate that we are now engaged in a discussion of implementation, not any moral deficiency of one group or another. By finding this short list of high-level shared values, we can begin to talk about how to achieve them.”

We all know that as we try to work through the emotions, fears, resentments, and historical realities that underlie racial injustices, we face far more than an implementation problem. But this exercise provided a way for students to engage in a conversation and a collaborative problem-solving process without some of them judging and excluding others in the room at the outset. They might have disagreed about whether discrimination was a problem, but they could all agree that achieving fairness in society was important.

The Power of Common Ground

When we enter a conversation in which we have deep differences in our perceptions of reality, we might do well to start by finding common ground around a desired outcome, even at a very high level, and work backward from there. This approach doesn’t solve the challenge in question, but it can allow individuals with strong differences at least to begin to hear each other.

Through my experience in teaching GVV, in the class I mention above as well as in others, I have learned lessons about the power of reframing a conversation and engaging in an action-focused conversation about what might be possible. These are components of the GVV pedagogical approach, which I discuss in the concluding chapter of Giving Voice To Values: An Innovation and Impact Agenda.

In a world where the very nature of reality often feels as if it is under attack, this approach can be a critical starting point to finding solutions. Only after our students reframe the problem together can they engage in shared conversations, without surrendering the ability to commit to and give voice to their own values. Helping them find this common ground is an essential part of our educational purpose.


Mary C. Gentile of the University of Virginia Darden School of BusinessMary C. Gentile is the Richard M. Waitzer Bicentennial Professor of Ethics at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in Charlottesville, as well as the creator and director of Giving Voice To Values.