MBA Ethics Education: Speaking Up

This is the fourth (and final?) installment in a series of postings on ethics education for MBA students.

The fourth element of MBA ethics education that I want to talk about is the willingness and ability to speak up.

Often one of the biggest barriers to doing the right thing lies in not knowing what to do or say in a hierarchical or group context. Think first of hierarchies. Pretty much all organizations are hierarchical in nature, with each individual answerable to, and performing tasks assigned by, someone in the layer above. In such contexts, when your performance evaluations (and maybe your very job) relies on your boss’s perceptions of you, it can be pretty tough to “speak truth to power,” as the saying goes, even when your conscience says you should. Next think of groups. Business involves a lot of teamwork — a lot of MBA education revolves around that fact — and on teams there can be pressure to conform, to go with the flow, to be a ‘team player.’ But more often than not, if something unethical is about to be done, and least one person on the team realizes that it’s wrong. The question in such cases is whether that one person will have what it takes to speak up. Part of MBA ethics education should be aimed at giving people what it takes to do so.

At a first approximation, I’d say that speaking up when you see something unethical (or maybe just something thoughtless, with potentially bad consequences) requires three things.

First, you need the understanding — the ethical sensitivity, if you will — to notice that something is wrong.

Second, you need to be motivated — you need to care, and you need the courage to act in the face of the pressures of hierarchy and teamwork. You need some understanding of just what your obligations really are. (Among other things, this requires a refusal to indulge in self-serving excuses.)

Third, you need the skills to actually formulate and voice an objection. You need to know things like how to express ethical doubts in a non-threatening way. You need to know how to seek out allies who might share your ethical qualms. And you need a vocabulary in which to express your concerns. In these regards, I highly recommend a book from which I’ve learned a lot, namely Mary Gentile’s recent book, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right. It is a truly wise piece of writing, and “wise” is not a word I use very much.

None of this is intended to exaggerate the complexity of the simple act of raising one’s voice. But all the available evidence suggests that at least sometimes (and likely too often) it actually is difficult, in organizational settings, to speak up when we get the sense that something isn’t right. And (as discussed in a previous blog entry) it’s just not plausible to think that the people who fail to speak up are all somehow morally defective. Too often, bad things happen because good people don’t speak up. We need to make sure that MBA students (and, surely, others too) graduate with the skills to do so.

2 comments so far

  1. Stacie Chappell on

    I agree Chris! My colleagues and I have been using the GVV curriculum for three years now and have found it to be practical and powerful.

  2. […] MBA Ethics Education: Speaking Up (…too often, bad things happen because good people don’t speak up….) […]


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