New You Resolution

My latest MercatorNet article draws on a 17th Century French genius and an esoteric Neo-Confucian spiritual discipline to answer the question: what would make this new year truly more happy?

When asked at a party whether he was enjoying himself, George Bernard Shaw replied “that’s the only thing I am enjoying.” For most of us in life it is the other way around: we can blame circumstances, other people, cruel fate or daily drudgery but in the end the common factor in all our unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and complaint is we ourselves. There is something amiss in the human psyche, and we are loathe to face it, let alone try to fix it. We would happily renovate everything but ourselves, even to the point of hoping that the year itself will change for our benefit.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/new_you_resolution

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I can’t handle being useful

My latest piece at MercatorNet.com brings together my love of etymology and my deep, seething contempt for the language and culture of management:

Once we start giving people names and titles that reflect what they really do, it will no longer be possible to hide behind pomp and presentation. It’s one thing to say “I’m the manager of this team” and quite another to say “I handle these people”. The latter lacks pretence. It is a statement of action, and it has implications and repercussions that the softer title of ‘manager’ avoids. It’s the same rationale that led North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il to style himself “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have”.

 

The ethics of management: hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is defined as:

the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.

In ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli argues that it is much better to be seen to be virtuous than to actually have virtue”

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

In my experience, a corporate environment encourages the same duplicity. The values may differ – more popular keywords like ‘communication’, ‘connectedness’, and ‘creativity’ replacing traditional ones – but the pressure to keep up appearances is as real in business as it is in politics. It is not necessary for a manager to have these corporate qualities, but it is necessary for a manager to appear to have them.

Sometimes there’s an aspect of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ at play. No one has the courage (or rather, the disregard for their own career prospects) to tell a seemingly enthusiastic superior “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. But the difference is that the emperor believed in his clothes, whereas a hypocritical manager merely pays them lip-service.

Nonetheless, lip-service is powerful. Studies such as the Asch Conformity Experiment have shown that most people will change either their belief or their external behaviour to conform with majority opinion; how much more so when majority opinion is reinforced with financial and career considerations and the authority of a corporate hierarchy?

Hypocrisy in a superior is demoralising. The problem with a manager who is adept at “claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case”, is not that such a facade actually convinces people, but that it hides the truth, coerces conformity, and prohibits genuine communication. A manager who likes to gush gratuitously about how “I love my team!” is either a simpleton, on the verge of a mental breakdown, or very clearly demonstrating the tone of discourse she expects from her subordinates.

I once had a manager who was put in charge of a research department despite having no research qualifications or experience. In this context, hypocrisy translated into publicly talking up the supposed research goals and achievements, with liberal use of terms such as “world’s best practice”, “evidence based”, “rigorous”, and “validated”, while at the same time lowering the bar in terms of actual standards of evidence and methodologies employed, under the guise of ‘business priorities’ and the need to ‘kick some goals’.

Such was the magnitude of this hypocrisy that we, the researchers, mistook it for ignorance. Surely no one in their right mind would falsely claim such objective research standards? Surely the manager was just naive or confused? It took a long time, given our minimal one-way communication with our manager, to confirm that she had never intended for us to do real research in the first place, and though ignorance of research had clearly played a role in claiming such high standards, the gap between PR and reality was seemingly of no real consequence to our manager, the business, or the supposed mission of the ‘research’ enterprise of which we were a part.

By the time we confirmed this, no less than the Chairman of the Board had already publicly described as ‘ground breaking research’ a piece of work so hamstrung and hobbled by a ‘business’ mindset that it hardly warranted the label ‘research’, let alone the embarrassing hyperbole of ‘ground breaking’.

Yet this vindicates management hypocrisy: it was indeed beneficial for our manager to be seen to have presided over ‘ground breaking research’ without the uncomfortable necessity of having to actually facilitate such research, with its impractically indefinite timeframes, dangerously uncertain outcomes, and awkwardly un-businesslike ethos. Much safer to initiate a project with predetermined outcomes and just tell everyone how ground-breaking it was. The Chairman of the Board might be right at the top of the corporate pecking-order, but when it comes to assessing the merits of alleged research he was, ironically, as susceptible to the hypocrisy of middle-management as we, the researchers.

Last I heard, our former manager was still in charge of a research department with dedicated admin support and business development personnel, but no actual researchers. The irony is delightful, and entirely appropriate to the business ethos of style over substance.

In the end Machiavelli was right, hypocrisy is indeed of great advantage to the Prince. But in embracing hypocrisy the Prince becomes a contemptible creature without moral or intellectual integrity.

Coherence of character

In ethics we typically look at actions rather than people. But part of ethics involves understanding what actions can tell us about the people who perform them.

Confucius said:

Look at the means he employs, observe the sources of his conduct, examine what gives him comfort – where can he hide? Where can he hide?

In other translations: “In what way is a man’s true character hidden from view?”

We can indeed separate a person’s actions from their character, but when a person’s actions become habitual, or are chosen ‘freely’ without external constraint, then we can also make assessments or at least hypotheses about their character.

Someone might lie to you once under pressure, and we forgive it. But if they lie regularly, we recognise that this is somehow their habitual response, part of their character. Likewise, if someone lies when they are not under pressure, ie. they lie gratuitously, we realise there is something wrong with them personally.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument that a person is habitually manipulative and a liar at work, yet seems to be a ‘good mother’, friend, or partner in private contexts.

Typically we try not judge someone ‘as a person’ because we may not see the full picture – they may exhibit different qualities in different contexts. However, I would argue that a) behaving differently in different contexts can most likely be coherently explained, b) it is possible that some people behave incoherently/inconsistently, and c) either a or b actually further implicates the person’s character.

Let me explain:
If someone is willfully manipulative of others in a work context, I would not be at all surprised if she is equally manipulative in other private contexts. I would never broach this in public of course, but we can take the disarray of a person’s private relationships as another ‘data point’ in an ongoing assessment of their character.

If she is *not* equally manipulative in a private context, there must be reasons. The reasons may be that her manipulations are only really motivated by money or by power, and her private relationships at present do not happen to impinge on those motives. Yet in theory there would always be potential for the line to be crossed.

If, on the other hand, someone truly behaves inconsistently, this is far from a redeeming feature. Inconsistency is not a good character trait, not a virtue. There’s a story of a senior Nazi officer who would quite happily murder Jewish children and then go home to his own young family and be a ‘loving father’. There is no virtue in this…the fact that he didn’t murder his own children, or the fact that he didn’t feel any love or mercy toward the Jewish children…in either case, he clearly had some kind of deep incoherence in his psyche. Call it a lack of ’empathy’ if you will.

Let’s say I lie to everyone at work, but I never lie to my wife. There’s no real merit in this, unless perhaps I constantly struggle not to lie to my wife, and in that sense am fighting with the ‘thin end of the wedge’ in my lying behaviour more generally. But if I am stable in my behaviour, lying to others but not lying to my wife, I am either acting out of an irrational incoherence, or I am acting rationally according to some arbitrary moral principle such as “you can lie to anyone *except* your wife”, or something more utilitarian such as a need to have my wife’s support in case everyone else turns against me.

Such character assessments should never be taken as a definitive judgement or total condemnation of an individual. But the fact is that a person’s character cannot remain hidden, and for our own sake we can draw reasonable conclusions about how a person is likely to behave in future.

As Confucius’ schema suggests, a person’s ‘true character’ can be ascertained from their actions, motives, and where they turn for comfort. In a truistic sense, we can tell how a person is likely to be by observing how they already are.

The ethics of management: honesty

Two readers have asked me to elaborate on the earlier post in which I touched on the issue of ethics in management.

Ethics in management is a subset of ‘business ethics’ or ‘corporate ethics’ in general.  As someone with a great deal of experience in bio-ethics, I have to admit that business ethics never struck me as particularly complicated.  Whatever challenges business may face, they pale alongside the complexity of issues such as human cloning, xenotransplantation, or ectogenesis, to name a few.

I assume (let’s call it an educated guess) that ‘business ethics’ is just a matter of applying regular ethics in a business context – the kind of problems that could be resolved merely by not ceasing to act like a good person during your day-job.  So let’s start small and see if we can devise some applications for ethics in the realm of business.

Honesty

In a previous role with a corporate not-for-profit aged-care provider, the manager once emailed our team of eight to organise a meeting with the director of our department.  The email included the time and date, noting in advance that two of our colleagues would be busy and unable to make it, with ‘apologies’ suitably noted. It was unusual for our director to want to see us, so I emailed the manager to ask what the meeting was about. “Just a catch up” she replied.

On the day of the meeting the director and an HR manager arrived at the office where I worked with two of my colleagues.  The HR manager’s presence was slightly ominous, as was the non-appearance of our own manager, or any of our other colleagues.  As it turned out, the email setting up a ‘team meeting’ was a ploy to ensure the three of us could be made redundant without any fuss, awkwardness, or opportunity for difficult questions.

To identify this as an ethical lapse would sound naive in a business context.  No one would be losing any sleep over the fact that our manager told us a blatant lie.  Anyone we might complain to would see the complaint as merely a reflection of our bitterness over having being made redundant, and would interpret the ethical critique as a churlish attempt to throw mud at our former manager.

So perhaps the need for ‘business ethics’ is real after all – not because business throws up unique ethical challenges, but because people acting under the auspices of professional authority need a specific reminder that ethics still applies.

In a business context the fact that our manager so obviously lied to us would not be viewed as an ethical failure, but simply as how she chose to deal with this particular management scenario.  She could potentially be criticised for her management style, but even then the lie would be viewed merely as a tactical failure, not a moral one.

If we were friends or relatives instead of subordinates, the lie would take center-stage.  No one would critique her ‘friend management style’ as though there are a number of techniques and tactics for controlling and manipulating one’s friends; they would immediately recognise that the moral issue of honesty was the point of concern.

The Ideal

Why is it wrong for a manager to lie to her subordinates?  We could spend all day looking at a number of contentious ethical theories, but let us confine ourselves to the understanding that honesty is a virtue.  As a virtue, honesty is the habitual inclination toward the truth.  An honest person prefers truth over lies and acts in accord with that preference.  Lying is a breach of that virtue, and an unrepentant lie suggests a dishonest character. Naturally, a dishonest person cultivates distrust in those around her.  Looking back through the two years we worked with that manager, it is now unclear if anything she ever said to us was worthy of trust.

In this sense, a dishonest person is bad for subordinates and colleagues who cannot trust her, and bad for superiors who cannot rely on her.  Distrust and unreliability are bad for morale and undermine the culture of the organisation.

But more importantly, dishonesty is bad for the individual herself.  Dishonesty means routinely putting other motives ahead of the truth. It is a sign of a disordered soul that does not value the truth and can no longer preserve a sense of reverence or even obligation to the truth.  It also signifies a lack of respect for others, a callousness towards colleagues, subordinates, and superiors that ultimately implies a deeply egoistic individual.  Whatever her deepest motives, a manager who lies is simply a person who lies; and a person who lies has a disordered soul.

An organisation that encourages its employees to lie – either tacitly or overtly – is itself disordered.  But the reality is that any ‘organisation’ is, in ethical terms, no more than the sum of its parts.  That means a director who encourages a manager to lie, or a colleague who turns a blind eye to it, are increasingly complicit in the dishonesty at play.  It is not possible to hide behind the organisation any more than it is a viable excuse to be a passive bystander to some kind of group violence.  We cannot look at others being lied to or otherwise deceived by a colleague, say “glad it’s not me!”, and then move on with ‘business as usual’.

Ultimately we too are culpable for making ourselves accomplices to such deeds.  A dishonest manager wreaks havoc on her own character; colleagues who excuse or rationalise such behaviour as ‘just business’ damage themselves in the process.  At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves who and what we wish to align ourselves with: powerful people who have forged careers with scant regard for the truth and respect for others?  Or do we prefer truth and respect over money and influence?

What price do you put on your own good character?  And do you truly recognise the price you are already paying for your dishonesty?  These are hard questions, and they are meant to be.  Ethics is not about basic rules or protocols, but about the substance of your own life – what kind of person you are, and what kind of person you are becoming.  The problem with business ethics in general is that when money is involved we lose our normal sense of priorities.  We act as though the organisation shields us from culpability. But this sense of being ‘shielded’ is already a kind of damage to your psyche.  It’s an unsubstantiated dissociation from one’s own moral sense.  It is what allows dishonest people to thrive, and honest people to let them.  Can you imagine what would happen if every employee of an organisation took personal moral responsibility for their actions?

More to come…

 

 

Style over substance

Intrepid commenter dtcwee asked:

what role does the goal play in determining whether an endeavour is shallow? What is a shallow goal? And can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

Appearances are always more shallow than reality.  The phrase “style over substance” is pejorative because we take for granted that substance is almost always more important than style, such that an inversion of priorities is contemptible.

Goals that invert or disrupt natural priorities may be considered shallow, like putting style before substance.  For example, an academic whose goal is to obtain a high number of publications, but who isn’t concerned with the quality or significance of his work.  A singer who wants to be high on the charts but doesn’t really care about how he gets there.  Or a multitude of bloggers, youtube account holders, and other social media fanatics who desperately want to somehow get rich, but don’t have any genuine motivation or inspiration behind their content: – these can all be considered people with shallow goals.

But is this really different from the previous post where we defined shallow endeavours as instances where “the efforts, knowledge, everything that makes up the endeavour itself, are insufficient for the stated goal”?

I think they are different, because in the examples given above the goals are quite specific and oriented toward the defect we are calling ‘shallowness’.  These are not cases where the academic mistakenly thinks his shallow efforts to merely get published are appropriate to his position.  No, a shallow goal contains a kind of duplicity or deception, like a shoddy good masquerading as something of quality.  Whereas a shallow endeavour might see someone totally out of their depth, a person with a shallow goal is quite able to achieve it.  The value of the shallow goal lies in deceiving people, finding shortcuts, cutting corners, and so on.

But as with the previous case of the shallow endeavour – a shallow effort directed toward a genuine goal – it is only with the benefit of greater knowledge that we can label the shallow goal as somehow deficient.  It is ‘shallow’ relative to the normal expectations, in the same way that a product or service is considered defective according to established norms.

I’m sure we’ve all come across situations where people have, in good faith, attempted to undertake a project vastly beyond their abilities.  But many of us have no doubt also come across situations where people have, in bad faith or cynicism, tried to pass off a half-arsed job as the real deal.

The terminology here is far from definitive, because the original intention was to clarify depth rather than shallowness.  In that case, what really matters is that we have so far described two cases of insufficient depth – one intentional and one unintentional.

In this context, how should we answer the second part of the question:

can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

In theory it can, though the scenario would be somewhat comedic, in that it would imply a person so dedicated to a shallow goal that their efforts become disproportionate to the goal and do approach depth.

Take, for example, the Swedish film ‘The Swimsuit Issue‘ in which a group of middle-aged Swedish men become involved in synchronised swimming as a joke, but start to take it seriously and end up competing in major competitions.  There are other examples that will come to mind later, but the point is that there can indeed be depth in the pursuit of a shallow goal, however, the depth seems to engage and transform the character in new ways, such that by the end the nature of the goal itself has changed, and is perhaps no longer shallow.

 

 

 

 

Melancholic Facades and the Challenge of Sincerity

Melancholics learn to interact with people through a facade. At the same time, they hate to be subject to duplicity or manipulation by others.

This inconsistency makes sense if you consider that a melancholic is, on the one hand, not easily stirred by external stimuli, while on the other hand he is afraid of being shamed or humiliated. Not easily stirred by external stimuli means that the melancholic will often, by nature, fail to give a suitably emotive or excited or even interested response to another’s words or tales. He might in fact be emotive, excited, and interested, but not to the degree of expression expected by the other temperaments. For a Sanguine interlocutor, the words ‘no, I really am interested’ delivered in monotone with a deadpan expression are insufficiently encouraging.

Depending on the degree of negative and disappointed responses he receives, the melancholic may learn that he must amplify his expressions until others are satisfied. A blank stare must become an encouraging nod; an encouraging nod must become a warm smile; a warm smile must become amused laughter.

This is in fact incredibly draining and slightly demeaning; draining because it requires constant effort to monitor and adapt one’s own expression, demeaning because it undermines one’s natural responses. Yet for an adult melancholic these habits may already be deeply ingrained. At its worst the melancholic may feel that the amplification of his expressions takes on a life of its own, becoming a mask or facade that impinges on his own integrity. But the melancholic never thinks of the facade as an imposition on others, or as a form of benign manipulation. It is, after all, benevolent -an attempt to embody a more ideal example of interpersonal communication- and the pains of an amplified smile or habitual chuckle are borne by the melancholic alone, the cost of pursuing the ideal.

There are two main scenarios in which the melancholic facade encounters a facade in the other.

The first is when the melancholic encounters a facade like his own. In such cases, the melancholic usually realises that he cannot ‘read’ the other person, which is to say that he does not get the expected feedback to his own facade. It’s as though both are trying to be ‘good listeners’ but that leaves no one to do the actual talking. The best outcome is to find some point of common interest that can get behind the facade.

The second scenario can be much harder to pick, depending on the other person. It could be a boss, a friend, a colleague, or a neighbour, and the facade will change accordingly. They may be consistently hard to read, or they may simply give off an impression that conflicts with the context or content of how they present themselves. For example, when someone offers praise that doesn’t ring true despite their apparent sincerity, or when they share information that doesn’t seem quite relevant, or when their persona shifts in an unexpected way in the presence of a third person, such that their responses to you become inconsistent; these examples are clues that a person is not being completely open with you, and may have a hidden agenda or vested interest of which you are unaware.

The melancholic finds these instances of duplicity and manipulation hateful for three reasons: first, because he is susceptible to such tactics and hence is doubly embittered when he finds himself deceived. Second, because he hates to be shamed and humiliated, and it can be both shameful and humiliating to be unwittingly manipulated by another. Third, because the melancholic’s own facade is the product of well-intentioned albeit misguided effort to connect with others in a mutually affirming way, to embody the ideal of interpersonal commmunication. Since attempts to manipulate the melancholic are mediated by this facade, the melancholic may feel that his bona fide attempts to relate to others have been abused. Someone has taken advantage of his attempt to meet the ideal.

In such scenarios the melancholic may revert to a more genuine idealist response, which puts personal integrity above interpersonal ideals. Once he realises that others are not playing by the rules, or in good faith, he will immediately become more cautious, reserved, and less responsive. In his mind, the manipulative person can no longer be trusted, and there is no longer any need to maintain the facade. This change can come as a surprise to others, who may feel that the melancholic has suddenly become a different person or radically changed the nature of the relationship.

The Challenge of Sincerity

This example of facades and interpersonal communication shows how the tendency to embrace the ideal can work against the melancholic if the ideal he chooses is incomplete, one-sided, or misguided. At face value it is genuinely ideal to be polite, empathic, considerate, and attentive. But another ideal – the ideal of sincerity, authenticity, and integrity conflicts with a single-minded pursuit of idealised interpersonal communication. In practical terms, the melancholic will suffer if he continually forces himself to pretend to be polite, empathic, considerate and attentive. In fact, the whole relationship will suffer if the melancholic fails to express himself honestly.

Melancholics are liable to apply their uncertainty and fear of being shamed to their own self-expression, holding back out of concern that their natural, uncontrived, honest self-expression might unintentionally offend, hurt, or disappoint others. A melancholic will tend to think long and hard before speaking, in hope of avoiding such outcomes.

The ideal of sincerity presents a challenge. The melancholic knows that everything will be better in the long run if he ceases to control and contrive his interactions with others; yet he fears the immediate consequences of failing to self-censor and self-control, even while knowing it is flawed and unsustainable. He fears that his true self will turn out to be an objectively bad self. Yet he knows that even a bad self is at least a self, whereas a facade is no self at all.

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma.

The melancholic tends to think in ‘all or nothing’ dichotomies. Either maintain the facade for the sake of ideal interpersonal communication, or drop it completely for the sake of ideal sincerity. But sincerity does not mean pretending one has no inclination to better express oneself. Sincerity does not mean disowning the desire for ideal communication. Sincerity does not mean that the desire to communicate better is somehow false.

Sincerity simply means being without pretence, duplicity, or deceit. While the melancholic facade may constitute pretence, duplicity or deceit, the motivation behind the facade is sincere, and can be expressed in a more sincere way. In other words, there is no need to present to the world either a polished facade or a polished sincerity. No, the choice is between a polished facade and an unpolished sincerity, a potentially messy and inconsistent sincerity, a sincerity that may take time to come into its own.

The fears that push the melancholic towards a facade will fade in time if we allow the gradual exploration of sincerity to unfold. In practice, this means resisting the urge to fill each moment of interpersonal communication with one’s idealised set of responses, cues, expressions and attention. It means allowing oneself to lean instead toward one’s actual feelings and responses, perhaps slowly at first, but with greater surety over time. It may mean expressing sincerely one’s doubts, concerns, and even one’s wish to communicate more ideally – but to express them without duplicity, rather than through the contrived and convoluted mechanism of a facade.

As the Confucian classic, The Great Learning, states:

What is meant by “making the thoughts sincere,” is the allowing no self-deception, as when we hate a bad smell, and as when we love what is beautiful. This is called self-enjoyment. Therefore, the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

This applies not only to self-deception but to the deception of others as well. But ultimately we are deceiving ourselves as well if we think that there is anything to gain from the melancholic facade.