The ethics of management

I have a friend who is considering studying philosophy next year, and I once would have told him to do something useful and interesting like….anything that pays money and isn’t fundamentally hateful.

But “I need money” is not an ideal motivation for pursuing a vocational path, and in light of what I’ve since learned about melancholic idealists, pursuing a less-than-ideal motive is psychologically and spiritually self-destructive.

Look at me: I stuck with a weird and uncertain job for two years because it was the sensible thing to do, leaving only when my ‘superiors’ had completed their task of making my and my colleagues’ roles entirely redundant.  It wasn’t a good position to be in, though I learned a great deal about the inanity of corporate culture and can now list on my CV under ‘achievements’: “gained a healthy and fully justified contempt for management practices in the corporate not-for-profit sector.”

My time in that role taught me two things about philosophy:

Firstly, philosophy is totally beyond the scope of most people, including otherwise intelligent or seemingly successful corporate types.  Not beyond them by nature, but beyond them by training, inclination, and perhaps by temperament.  For most people, engaging in philosophy would be a real struggle.  They might struggle to appreciate the point or the purpose, they might struggle to understand the necessary distinctions and subtleties, and they may well struggle with the sheer practical demands of having to read a great deal and think a great deal.

Secondly, I learned that something like a corporate not-for-profit actually needs philosophy, and ethics in particular. But they get along fine without philosophy, if by ‘fine’ we mean something better than criminal incompetence but so short of the ideal that any actual idealists within their ranks will inevitably adopt a defeated and cynical attitude.  What passes for idealism in such an environment is actually the motivated self-belief and personal ‘marketing’ of key choleric (ambitious) individuals; the kinds who generate enthusiasm that is entirely directed toward their own career goals, and whom underlings learn to fear for their self-interested domineering.  A best-case-scenario is that an ambitious corporate choleric will pursue self-interest through an intelligent and genuinely beneficial scheme, delivering real improvements while enhancing their own career.  Unfortunately not all cholerics are intelligent enough to achieve such a ‘win-win’ outcome.  Other, less enlightened cholerics will simply lie, exaggerate, and play politics with Machiavellian intent if not intelligence.

This is the basic difference between a choleric and a melancholic: a melancholic will look at the unethical behaviour of various employees and say “this is not how it is meant to be”.  A choleric will make the same observation but add “and I’m the one to change it”.  A corporate choleric will go one step further, latching onto ‘business ethics’ as the Next Big Thing, and using it to promote his or her own position within the organisation, replete with powerpoint presentations, posters, wristbands and other corporate merchandise, and perhaps a business-wide ‘be ethical’ day where everyone makes a special effort to do something ethical and tell everyone about it.

The relationship between a manager and her team is fundamentally an ethical one.  The need for an ethical perspective is clear when a manager lies, deceives, or otherwise undermines her team for the sake of her own career or under the auspices of her superiors.  Indeed, a corporate culture or ethos that requires its managers not merely withhold information but actively lie to their subordinates, is unethical and hence dysfunctional.  All the effort, time and money invested in trite and manipulative management theories and techniques, unscientific personality type indicators such as the Myers-Briggs, and corporate propaganda such as values statements and clever slogans, would be better spent inducting the organisation into a basic set of ethical principles.  All the superficial management tricks are belied the moment a superior treats a subordinate unethically without repercussion or justice from within the organisation.  An organisation that cannot do right by its employees may survive, but it will never reach the heights portrayed in its own propaganda or PR.  And in nevertheless persisting with a positive image that it cannot or will not strive to fulfill, it will continue to cultivate cynicism, distrust, and contempt among its employees.

Philosophy could fix this, but unfortunately philosophy and ethics are not deemed useful in such an environment.  A corporation will not open itself to philosophy and ethics unless it has an appreciation for the benefits these disciplines can bring.  Yet corporations are ruled by individuals who have gotten where they are in part because they have not dedicated themselves to philosophy and ethics, but have sought personal profit and career advancement over all.  The tragedy is that any adoption of ethical principles would require ‘buy in’ from precisely the kinds of people who regard lying and scheming as necessary – not even necessary evils, but simply necessary to the achievement of their personal aims.

As Socrates recounts in the first book of Plato’s Republic, when he and Glaucon are imposed upon by a group:

“May there not be the alternative, I said, that we may persuade you to let us go?
But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you? he said.
Certainly not, replied Glaucon.
Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured. ”



How Google Works

A friend sent me this slideshare presentation about the creative management philosophy behind Google.

If you’ve experienced a corporate environment, you’ll appreciate what they’re getting at.  If you haven’t, you might just want to skim through anyway:


I had two thoughts while reading this.

On the one hand, I wanted to send it to the CEO of an organisation I used to work for; an individual who strongly believes in innovation, but whose attempts to nurture it within the company met with what we might describe as institutionalised inertia combined with professional selfishness.

On the other hand, I have a terrible feeling that this feel-good Google story is exactly the kind of thing that would end up being played at a major staff meeting, with key individuals adopting the language and buzzwords but not actually changing their behaviour or the way the organisation functions.

Let’s face it, if the presentation didn’t have ‘Google’ stamped all over it like a corporate imprimatur, it’d be some weird and hopeful yet ultimately fruitless pep talk that we idealists would cling to while management moved invincibly onward, muttering ‘runs on the board’, ‘lets kick some goals’ and ‘bang for our buck’.

After all, the harsh reality is that if the ‘smart creatives’ were really so smart, they wouldn’t end up in the position of total professional dependence on managers whose own creativity and smarts are entirely devoted to self-interested career advancement.

If this sounds overly cynical, don’t worry. It’s just the voice of experience.  Cynicism should have been my KPI, given how steadily it increased over the course of my experiment in corporate employ.

The good news is that individuals may now be well placed to exercise the birthright of the ‘smart creative’, unencumbered and therefore unexploited by the increasingly impersonal machinations of big business.  To be free of dysfunctional corporate systems is one example of how, on a lower income, our lives can nonetheless be much richer.