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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Season 2, Episode 3: Interview with Mary Gentile Discussing the Future of Business Ethics

Mary Gentile
September 24, 2020  |  By Cindy Moehring

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In this episode of the BIS: Business Integrity School Podcast, Cindy Moehring sits down with Mary Gentile, creator and director of “Giving Voice to Values” (GVV). Mary’s approach has advanced the ethics field by asking a completely different question. Once you know what you think the right thing to do is, how do you go about getting it done? This action-oriented step is a practical addition to the necessary awareness and analysis of issues.

Dr. Moehring and Professor Gentile continue the Season Two conversation about how business ethics has changed over the last 25 years, and how the GVV approach has moved the field forward, both for educators and practitioners. Tune in to hear how Professor Gentile thinks we can best move forward in business ethics for the next 25 years, and she has learned along the way that informed her GVV perspective.


Episode Transcript:


00:00 Cindy Moehring: Hi everybody, I'm Cindy Moehring, the founder and executive chair of the Business Integrity Leadership Initiative at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, and this is The BIS, the Business Integrity School podcast. Here we talk about applying ethics, integrity and courageous leadership in business, education and most importantly, your life today. I've had nearly 30 years of real world experience as a senior executive. So if you're looking for practical tips from a business pro who's actually been there, then this is the podcast for you. Welcome. Let's get started. Hi, everybody, I have with me here today Mary Gentile. She is the creator and the Director of Giving Voice to Values, which is a fabulous book, by the way, and approach to ethics. She's also a professor of practice at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. So welcome, Mary.

00:52 Mary Gentile: Thank you, I'm delighted to be here, Cindy.

00:55 Cindy Moehring: I'm really glad to have you here. Her areas of focus, let me tell you just a little bit about Mary, and then we'll dive into the conversation here. Her areas of focus are strategy and ethics and entrepreneurship and leadership. She is also a senior advisor at the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program. Mary's written a host of books and articles and won many awards for being an influential leader in business ethics. So we are super excited to have you here today.

01:22 Mary Gentile: Thank you.

01:24 Cindy Moehring: You're welcome. We are gonna be talking about, like I said, the Harvard Business Review article that was written about 25 years ago by a guy named Andy Stark. And he was talking then about what he saw as some of the problems with teaching Business Ethics, which was a fairly new topic to be taught in business schools then. And what we're gonna talk about is how... What has changed in the last 25 years? How has the approach changed, if at all? Do we think it's improved? And what do we think is the path forward for the next 25 years? So let me just start by asking you what your thoughts were on Andy's Harvard Business Review article. When he was mentioning then that the approach he thought to business ethics was too impractical and too theoretical, and too general, did that strike a chord for you at least back then, and is it still the case today?

02:30 Mary Gentile: Getting to Andy's article, there's so much in his article that I resonated with and that I agreed with, and some of which is still true, but there are some places where I would diverge a bit. I think he's right, and I know he's right, actually. And initially the way we tried to talk about ethics, and I was part of this, I'm not criticizing the world here. The way we tried to talk about ethics in business schools was to bring in philosophy. And philosophy is hugely valuable and provides many, many insights, but we weren't able to present it, share it, package it, deliver it in a way that was always accessible, clear, useful for our students.

03:16 Mary Gentile: The other thing that it did is that the traditional business school faculty felt like, as any professor would, they felt like their value-add in the world is their expertise. And if they weren't philosophers, they didn't feel comfortable teaching "Philosophy Lite." It went against their norms as academics, right? So you either brought in a philosopher who could talk about it in that way, but then he or she was more likely to frame it for philosophy students and also didn't have the depth of background in business reality, or you asked business school faculty to integrate it into what they were doing, and they were hugely uncomfortable because this wasn't their body of knowledge, and it seemed like it was a distraction from what they were teaching, and they didn't know how to bring the two together.

04:07 Mary Gentile: So for all those reasons, I agree with Andy, that that was a challenge. It was part of making it too theoretical, not practical enough. He also talks about it being too general and what he means there, I think is that often, business ethicists did a kind of critique of the capitalist system writ large. And certainly there are many things to criticize about the capitalist system writ large, but it was very difficult to go from there to, "What do I do if I'm the internal auditor in a firm and I'm being pressured to cook the books?" They were very important, this works on both levels, but it was hard to bring them together.

04:45 Cindy Moehring: Right.

04:46 Mary Gentile: So the way I tend to frame that and the way others tend to frame that, is that we were focusing on what I call the two As, awareness and analysis. So awareness meant that when we got to a more case-based approach, that was awareness. We were showing people examples of all the ways things could go wrong, okay? [chuckle] And I can remember talking to an accounting professor who said, "Sometimes I worry that I'm actually teaching people how to cook the books. [chuckle] Because we're spending so much time showing the problems," and that wasn't what he intended. So building awareness, which is important. You want people to know where things could go wrong.

05:28 Cindy Moehring: Right. And so... Because if you don't get past awareness, then you can never get to the other steps. And the difference is to sort of...

05:35 Mary Gentile: Yes, that's right.

05:35 Cindy Moehring: So they've got to recognize these situations is actually presenting ethics issues, so awareness, yeah exactly.

05:44 Mary Gentile: Exactly, because the comment I would often get from people is, "Well, students don't even recognize an ethical issue." So I think that's partly true, and that's why awareness is important, especially in a world that's increasingly global, where technology is developing, there are issues that are new to us that we didn't grow up with. I also think the awareness is, it's necessary but not sufficient, because a lot of the core ethical issues that we'll end up talking about in an ethics class, in a business school, are times when actually you kinda do know this was lying to the customer, this was cooking the books, this was putting an unsafe product through because we were on a time crunch, whatever it was. So front-loading our reporting, our inventory reporting, that kind of thing, our sales reporting. So awareness is necessary, not sufficient. The other thing we would do is teach analysis, and I think Andy talks about this as well, and this is his too theoretical critique. Where we would bring in the models of Ethical Reasoning from philosophy.

06:48 Mary Gentile: The idea behind this was a good one because they wanted to help people think, now that you've recognized the issue, can you think rigorously and consistently about where the lines are and what's right and wrong in a corporate setting rather than sharing philosophy. This often meant sharing the code of conduct or the corporate value statement, or the relevant laws and regulations. Again, necessary, important, both of these, think rigorously, know where the bright lines are. But then what we would do is we would give someone a case and we would say, "Is this over the line or not?" And the problem with that is that used poorly, and this was not the intent, but used poorly, it can become a schooling for sophistry, where people will begin to say, these models of ethical reasoning, they conflict. It's not like they give you a right answer, they give you what you should think. And so the answers will conflict depending on where you're putting the emphasis, are you looking at stakeholders or are you looking at duties? Are you looking at virtues? It became a helpful way to begin to think and reason, but they didn't tell you what's right, and this is where you get to Andy's third point about it being impractical. They certainly didn't tell you how to get it done.


08:08 Cindy Moehring: Yeah. When you get out in the business world, it's gonna be a lot about getting it done, and so how do you do that ethically? Yeah, you're right.

08:13 Mary Gentile: Right. So this is where we move beyond where I think Andy was when he wrote this article, no criticism of him, things that have developed since then.

08:21 Cindy Moehring: Yeah, fortunately.

08:22 Mary Gentile: Yes, yes, since then, there's been a whole lot more research in psychology, in neurosciences and behavioral ethics, behavioral economics, and we know a lot more about how people act and why people act and how they react to values conflicts. And so one of the things that we've learned is that when people encounter these kinds of tension points, these conflicts, it's not like we sit down. And this is human beings, this isn't just business. It's not like we sit down and make a pro and con list or think, "What would John Rawls say?" And "What would Aristotle say?" We don't do that. Instead, we tend to react emotionally, automatically, often even unconsciously, and then we rationalize post hoc why it was the right thing to do or why it was the only thing we could do. Those are the two arguments you get. It was okay or I had no choice, right?

09:18 Mary Gentile: And so just helping people think in that way, then that ends up supporting that schooling for sophistry idea, because you're better at rationalizing after the fact. So, what I figured we needed to do was to go do... Create a different kind of pedagogy for the action part. For the, "What do you do?" part. I think what we really needed to do was not just give people a decision-making framework. That's what people always look for and want. There's a million of them. And it's not that they're useless, they're not enough. And so what I decided is we needed a different pedagogical approach.

09:58 Cindy Moehring: Got it.

09:58 Mary Gentile: So we needed to... I call it, it's like a post-decision-making approach. So instead of giving someone a scenario and saying, "What would you do Cindy? What's the right thing to do?" Because if you do that, you'll get three kinds of answers and none of them are helpful. You get the people who will say, "Well, I would always do the right thing," and they may really mean it, but you know in reality they probably won't always do that.

10:21 Cindy Moehring: It doesn't work that way in reality. Right.

10:25 Mary Gentile: For a lot of reasons. And then you get the people who would say, "Well, I know what you want me to say, Mary and Cindy, but in the real world, this is not possible. You're being naïve." And then you get the people who... And they may be just playing devil's advocate, but they may just be trying to be honest. And then you get the people who will argue with the premise. They'll say, "Well, it's not wrong." None of those approaches will get you to where we're trying to go, which is to prepare values-driven ethical leaders. And so what I thought needed to happen at that point, and this is what's supported by that new research, since Andy's article, is to actually rewire that automatic connection.

11:04 Mary Gentile: The automatic connection is because it's what you think is possible. And so if I've actually given you the opportunity to rehearse, to practice, to pre-script, to action plan, to peer coach, to work with my peers who are stand-ins for the kind of people I'd need to work with in the workplace, to create solutions that are ethical and effective, then I'm actually, when I'm in that situation, my immediate response, I have more options, I have more arrows in my quiver. 'Cause I've rehearsed this. I've built this new muscle memory. This moral muscle memory. So that's where I think Andy, he was setting the stage, but this new research, I think is taking us further.

11:48 Cindy Moehring: Yeah, I think you're right. So when he set the stage, he thought that the answer going forward was moderation, pragmatism and minimalism. What do you think about that? That's what he said 25 years ago, is what he thought the path forward should be. Do you agree with that? Or what do you think the path forward is? And where does your approach for action after awareness and analysis turning to action, where does that fit in? So he, again thought it was moderation, pragmatism and minimalism was the path forward.

12:26 Mary Gentile: Yeah, so I had a mixed reaction to his three words. I'm certainly all about being practical. I think the focus on action is nothing, if not trying to be practical, trying to give people the skills and the comfort and the confidence and the habit of acting effectively on their values. So I like that piece, but I feel like his motivation partly because he was reacting to all of those challenges that we just talked about. His motivation was to sort of narrow the ask, to make it feel more accessible, to make it feel more realistic. So I understand that, but I actually feel like I would come at it slightly differently. I feel that if you focus on what we were just talking about, this sort of rehearsal and action and pre-scripting and looking for different ways to act, that what you're actually doing, is rather than narrowing the ask, you're actually expanding the options. So I tend to think about these courses as more... Less about constraints on action, less about thou shalt not, and more about an entrepreneurial approach to ethics and sort of can do, more aspirational. It's like, "What if you could do this? How could you do this?"

13:47 Mary Gentile: And then I think people end up... Start realizing they may have had more options than they thought they did. When I interviewed people to develop Giving Voice to Values, the curriculum I've developed, they would tell me stories about... These are business people. They'd tell me stories about times when they'd acted on their values effectively, and also they would wanna tell me about the times when they fail. They wouldn't wanna present themselves as, "Boy, what a good girl am I." And when I asked them, "Well, why didn't you when you didn't," because they clearly were people who cared about it, they would almost always say, "Because I didn't think I had a choice."

14:23 Mary Gentile: And so, although I understand where Andy's coming from, I actually think it's more reactionary, it's more the sense of, "Oh, well these faculty and business people are gonna say, 'You can't ask this of me, it's too much to ask,'" and so he was trying to narrow the ask. I'm sort of saying, let's reframe the ask, so it's somewhere they want to go to. And where it then actually creates more options. And what I've interestingly found when I go to businesses and not just business schools, they like this approach because it's not just about ethics, it's really about leadership, it's about being able to do things maybe you didn't think you could do. [chuckle] Being more effective. So that's kind of how I think about that. I understand where he's coming from. I was there myself, but I feel like I'm pushing past that.

15:14 Cindy Moehring: Got it. So if you were to think about what you think your three words are now for moving past the point where we are, 'cause you've reframed what... So actually, you kind of reframed where you think we are today. Your approach is being one of them that reframed it and actually broadened it for individuals to think about the fact that they do have a choice. They're not trapped, right? They're not trapped. Showing them that almost feels empowering and freeing and is a great leadership point. So what do you think, if I were to ask you, are the three words that would describe what you think, let's call it ethics 3.0. If Andy was ethics, 1.0, where we are today is ethics 2.0. We've brought it current, we've added behavioral ethics, we've added your Giving Voice to Values, broadening approach for framework. What do you think ethics 3.0 is gonna be all about? And what three words would you use?

16:08 Mary Gentile: Yeah, so you're asking an academic to label ideas in one word or three words.


16:13 Cindy Moehring: Which is very hard to do, I know.

16:14 Mary Gentile: Can I have three phrases? [chuckle]

16:17 Cindy Moehring: Sure, absolutely.

16:19 Mary Gentile: Good, thank you. I thought about this a little before we spoke, and I guess I would say, I think number one, something we were just talking about is that it's about choice. It's about people having more choices than they may have believed they did when they walked into the situation. So it's about acknowledging that we have choice. The second one is what I call moral muscle memory. It's this idea about through rehearsals, through practice, through peer coaching, we create this almost automatic sense that we can do this. It's a comfort, it's a confidence, and it's also a set of skills that you can reach for. So a moral muscle memory, it becomes a more automatic response. And I guess the third one is, it's all about asking a new question. Instead of asking what's right, you try to ask, once you know what's right, how do you get it done effectively? So it's not just about being righteous. Andy talks about this in his article about that some of the philosophers would say, "Well, if it was something that you could do and not suffer for it, it's not ethical." I don't really approach it that way.

17:37 Cindy Moehring: Yeah, I know that's like an either or, like the world can't exist the way it is today. You're never gonna win that sort of... You're never gonna convince people.

17:47 Mary Gentile: It's very hard. It's very hard.

17:48 Cindy Moehring: You can't be like that isn't a reality you can live in.

17:49 Mary Gentile: Yeah, yeah. And so I think instead of asking, what's right, it's an important question of course. I'm not saying, don't worry about that. But we do that already. I think the question is, once you know what's right, how do you get it done effectively is really a key one. Those would be my sort of three phrases. I hope that's... Yeah.

18:07 Cindy Moehring: Got it. Okay, so thank you for that, and I think that that is... Actually kinda leads right into the next thing I wanted to ask you about, because those three choices and phrases... Or I'm sorry, those three phrases, one of them being choice, do speak to leadership, I would say on a personal level, and freeing the mind to think about, "Well, how would you do it?" 'Cause you do know what is right. If you take that to the corporate level, I'm wondering if you see any corollary there with what the business roundtable just came out with late last year on changing what they see as the main purpose of a corporation, which is according to them, and what they, 181 CEOs signed on to is no longer just to serve the shareholder, but to actually serve and balance the needs of all of the different stakeholders, including specifically called out, dealing ethically with your suppliers. So I'd like to have your reaction to that statement, and do you see a connection to what your approach is on the personal level to maybe what this group of CEOs is trying to say for corporations?

19:25 Mary Gentile: Right, right. So I'll start by saying I think it was a good thing that they did that. Just like the letter from BlackRock was a good thing. I think what's useful about it, is it becomes reinforcing. It becomes something that those practitioners and executives and managers as well as academics who are trying to talk about these issues can point to and can say leading figures in the professional practical world of business are recognizing that this is important.

19:56 Cindy Moehring: Yes.

19:56 Mary Gentile: The other thing that I'll say is that it's not new. [chuckle]

20:00 Cindy Moehring: Yeah, I agree.

20:01 Mary Gentile: Many people have been talking about this for a long time, including business professionals. It hasn't been something that an organization like the Roundtable has signed on to, which I think is huge because they've been uncomfortable doing that because of pressures for shareholder value maximization and all of those kinds of things. It's a little bit like, look at what's going on right now with racial justice. A lot of people are coming out and saying, a lot of companies, a lot of organizations, sports organizations are coming out and saying, "We support racial justice, Black Lives Matter," all of these things, and some of them are actually really putting some effort and visible things behind that and some are not. But on balance, I think it's a fabulous thing to have out there because it's something you can use when you're communicating to students. For years, we were stuck with the Milton Friedman article about the social responsibility of business is profit. So it's nice. And we were always looking for the succint compelling argument on the other side. It's nice to have that.

21:15 Cindy Moehring: Yes, yes. And sometimes there's real power in memorializing and writing down what many companies were, say, in this example, doing anyway. Okay, that's great, but memorializing it and writing it down so it is there on paper so that it's like writing your goals for the month and the year on a piece of paper and putting it right in front of you so you can hold yourself accountable. But on the other hand, the proof is in the pudding. It's like...

21:45 Mary Gentile: Right. Like everything. It's like a company having a beautiful state. Remember Enron, everyone made the jokes about their code of conduct, like it was an award-winning code of ethics, and then there were problems.

21:57 Cindy Moehring: Yeah, you get one point for writing it down but you get nine points for actually executing against this.

22:05 Mary Gentile: Execution.

22:05 Cindy Moehring: So if you want a perfect 10... But you gotta have that guiding light, so you know what you need to execute against, so I think it probably is helpful in that regard, even if people were executing against it. Well, this has been great, I'm gonna ask you three fun questions that I like to ask everyone that I talk to, and it's great resources too for folks. But what's the best book that you've read in the last few months?

22:34 Mary Gentile: Yeah, I was thinking about this, and most of the books I read are books for a book series that I edit. So I didn't really wanna necessarily just plug one of those. So I started... I thought in the last... It was probably the last five months, so I hope that's okay. So I read Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. And you know, he's a historian at Yale and he's a historian who studies populism. He's done a lot of work on the Holocaust and Nazis and World War II, Germany. But he's also looked at populism more globally. He's a really smart, interesting guy.

23:14 Mary Gentile: But this book is very readable. It's 20 things to think about if you're kind of worried about the direction that your nation or your world is going in, and one of his lessons, I think it might be the first or second is something where he talks about avoiding anticipatory obedience. And that's the one that really resonated for me regarding the things we're talking about. Because what he talks about is that in a historical context, when there were authoritarian regimes coming into power who were perhaps doing some things that were not so great that people would... Not that they supported the direction that things were going in, they needed to go there somehow they felt like they didn't have those choices. And he was pointing out that historically speaking, that actually made things worse and it made things worse faster.

24:04 Mary Gentile: And I thought that was a really interesting analogy, with what you sometimes see in corporations. 'Cause when I interview people who are lower in the organization and even senior people who are talking about pressures from the market. They will often curtail their sense of their options in anticipation so to be obedient to some imagined and real, but imagining the pressure sooner and greater than it may actually be.

24:35 Cindy Moehring: Isn't that interesting.

24:35 Mary Gentile: Well I thought that was relevant. It's a great book.

24:38 Cindy Moehring: It's a great... So give us the name and the author again?

24:41 Mary Gentile: Yes, it's called On Tyranny, and then the subtitle is, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It's just a small little book and written by Timothy Snyder, who's a professor at Yale.

24:52 Cindy Moehring: Great, that sounds like a wonderful recommendation for all of us at this point in time. So what about your favorite movie or video series that you've watched lately. A lot of us are spending more time at home.

25:06 Mary Gentile: Yeah, yeah, so I was thinking about that and I was thinking, well, two answers. I haven't been actually watching a lot of TV or movies I've been watching, and this is probably a mistake, but I've been watching the news. Over and over in different channels and different network takes of it. And it's challenging, but it's filled with ethical issues. And some of the biggest ones are what to do in response to things that you're seeing and reading. When I tried to think about something maybe a little lighter, I remembered a few months ago, I watched a series, I sort of binge watched it. It was a series that is older, but I had never seen it called Lie to Me. I don't know if you've ever seen this. It's about a guy who runs a business that he's supposed to be very good at detecting when people are being deceptive. And so it raises issues like concept of radical honesty, and it also talks about, well, how honest you have to be when you're trying to catch someone who's being dishonest. And there's a lot of ethical issues floating around in it, plus it's just really entertaining.

26:20 Cindy Moehring: What about a good podcast you've listened to lately?

26:23 Mary Gentile: Yeah, yeah, the one that occurred to me as soon as I read your question was... I recently listened to one, it was one of Brene Brown's podcasts but it's with Ibram X. Kendi who is the guy who wrote How to Be an Antiracist, I gave you his book. He had a really interesting point that has stayed with me. You'll recognize it, it's not brand new, but he said it so well, and it is useful. Where he said that when you're in a group and you're looking at the other group, we tend to look at individual negative behaviors in the other group, and then generalize to the whole, say the whole group is like that. Whereas, we tend to look at individual positive traits in our own group and we generalize to the whole group and say the whole group is like that. And it happens in different directions and across and everything, but it's particularly powerful for a majority group toward a minority group, because they then have the power to use that against the group that is being somehow discriminated against. So I thought it was interesting to just test our assumptions about these generalizations we're making about individual negative or positive traits.

27:43 Cindy Moehring: It is, I loved that podcast. I listened to it as well. In fact, I listened to it a couple of times because he had so many good little nuggets in there. Another one that I really liked was just the basic concept that to be an anti-racist actually requires action backed to that. Sitting on the sidelines...

28:05 Mary Gentile: That's just in your head.

28:08 Cindy Moehring: And saying to yourself, "Well, I'm not an anti-racist," isn't enough. So I think that concept and wrestling with it individually in terms of plugging in an action back to the overall point for GBD was really interesting, so well, Mary, this has been wonderful, thank you so much for being with us today. I appreciate it, and you just have a wealth of information and knowledge to share, so thank you, really appreciate it.

28:34 Mary Gentile: Thank you. It's been fun.

28:35 Cindy Moehring: Alright.


28:35 Cindy Moehring: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The BIS, the Business Integrity School. You can find us on YouTube, Google SoundCloud, iTunes, or wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, and you can find us by searching theBIS, that's one word, T-H-E-B-I-S. Tune in next time for more practical tips from a pro.

Matt WallerCindy Moehring is the founder and executive chair of the Business Integrity Leadership Initiative at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. She recently retired from Walmart after 20 years, where she served as senior vice president, Global Chief Ethics Officer, and senior vice president, U.S. Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer.

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