US education pioneer Dr Mary Gentile has seen first-hand some of the most devastating ethical failures of the business world, and it is that experience that has shown her how to overcome the biggest barriers to acting ethically.
Dr Gentile, in Melbourne recently for the Communities in Control conference, came with a powerful solution to the ethical failures wracking many organisations across the world.
Striding the stage in a spirited performance, Dr Gentile described her “crisis of faith” having taught the captains of industry at Harvard Business School, yet repeatedly witnessing graduates from leading US universities later facing up to some of the biggest scandals, financial collapses and ethically questionable behaviours in history.
She trawled through thousands of experiences from business leaders to ask: Why do some do the right thing, but not others? “We couldn’t say one group of people were ‘more morally troubled’, or organisationally sophisticated or politically savvy.”
But she found a pattern: that often, those prepared to act ethically had rehearsed their actions beforehand, through a teacher, a mentor, or someone senior to them.
It made sense to Dr Gentile, who, as a martial artist accustomed to defending herself in training, understood the power of "muscle memory", or acting on learned reflexes.
As Dr Gentile put it: “Rather than asking them to think their way to a different way of action, ask them to act their way to a different way of thinking.”
“When we get these tests of character, we almost dumb down and freeze. Which is why we need to practise all these skills.”
Dr Gentile has developed that skill into a system dubbed “Giving voice to value”.
“Giving voice to value is all about once you know what’s right, how do you get it done effectively? And what will the pushback be?”