Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teaching students how to stand up for their values

Last semester was the first time I used Mary Gentile's excellent Giving Voice to Values in the classroom. While I'd been teaching business ethics pretty successfully for five years, I still had one set of comments in student evaluations that kept coming up: all of this talk about ethics from the commanding heights of a business was all well and good, but they wanted to know what they should do when an ethical problem comes up at work. How does one deal with a co-worker who wants to lie to regulators about a product defect, or a manager who is using her position to give perks to friends and family?

The exercise I used from her book is called "Two Stories" and is simple enough to describe: I had my students think about a time when they stood up for their values in a tough situation, and a time when they wished they had, but didn't. Then, they have to answer four questions about both stories:

1. What did you do, and what was the impact?
2. What motivated you to speak up and act?
3. How satisfied are you? How would you like to have responded?
4. What would have made it easier for you to speak/act?

I'm guessing this could be a good homework assignment, but I had them do it in class to stoke discussion. And the discussion that ensued was great. The stories ranged from a shopping cart accidentally hitting a Mercedes in the parking lot to international aid work. I had a student from Liberia in the class, and he captivated the class with a story about a time when he stood up (and failed to get anything done) to his superiors in a refugee camp who weren't distributing food fairly. But of course the real magic of the "Two Stories" exercise is in the answers to the questions. Gentile predicts that answers will fall into a number of categories that end up being "enablers" or "de-enablers" of ethical behavior. At least in my class, her predictions were dead-on. And it didn't take much work at all draw general parallels between all of the stories my students told. (After a couple more times doing the exercise, I plan on writing down her list and sealing it in an envelope for a fun reveal in class.)

What's great about Gentile's book is that she takes this list of factors that enable or de-enable standing up for one's values and turns them into best practices for standing up for your values in the workplace. For instance, she notes one commonality between stories is the presence of absence of "allies", or a social group at work. People who stand up for their values successfully tend to have supporters and friends who they believe will stand behind them. When people don't stand up for their values they often report that they don't do so because they feel they would be marginalized and alone. So Gentile argues (plausibly, in my opinion) that a key part of dealing with unethical situations at work is to build a support system of friends and colleagues as soon as possible. It's a great recommendation that draws attention to something many people do unconsciously. She has similar recommendations for framing confrontations, gathering evidence and data beforehand, and so on.

Frankly I think building a discussion around the enablers and de-enablers of ethical behavior is worth doing her exercise in the first place. But she also says that the exercise builds confidence. By telling the stories of times when they have stood up for their values, students are reminded that this is something they've done before. And by analyzing the stories, they learn that it's not just up to fate or their will alone whether they will have the courage to voice their values. Rather, it's about preparing and applying practical skills.

This semester I moved Gentile's book into a more central place in the course's curriculum, and I'm excited about what students have to say about reading more of it. I'd highly recommend deploying the "Two Stories" exercise in any ethics class as a way of generating discussion. It can be a great relief from talking about theory or contentious social issues and help students to see the relevance of ethics in their daily lives.


  1. That sounds like a good exercise and a good book. In my research on moral courage, I've run across empirical research suggesting that often people fail to have the courage of their convictions because they don't know how, as it were, to "stand up," how to effectively intervene, speak up, and so forth. (So there's often a fear of failure, just as much as a fear of reproach (or worse) at work...) Thanks for the post.

  2. FYI, Mary Gentile has made the "curriculum" for Giving Voice to Values available for free at http://www.babson.edu/faculty/teaching-learning/gvv/Pages/curriculum.aspx. I'm trying it out in a very minor way at the end of my Contemporary Moral Issues course this semester, so I'm glad to hear that you've had good experiences with it.


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