Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dare to be ethical?

Reading the book “Giving Voice to Values” by Mary Gentile corroborated a longstanding assumption of mine that acting out our sense of right and wrong is something that can be directly promoted by rehearsal. Her observation is that most “business ethics” courses tend to focus either on abstract ethical theory or then the analysis of specific cases, but neglect any sort of concrete training as to how, precisely, we would like to behave and what we should say in a specific situation where we intuitively feel that something is amiss. Knowing does not automatically lead to doing, much less to effective doing. And knowing without conviction can even lead to misuse and skillful self-justification. Indeed, she gives examples where managers whom she had interviewed expertly elaborated and adroitly rationalized their morally questionable behavior on the basis of ethical theories that they had previously been taught at University. Thus they simply picked and chose the ethical theory that best supported their particular behavior and prerogatives at that time and context, no matter how self-serving or cynical.

By rehearsing just how we would – in words and deeds – respond to something amiss, we simply do what any athlete does when training for the time when it really matters: flex the muscles and hone in their coordination in such a way so as to make their execution all but automatic during an athletic event. As to how to convince highly competitive individuals of the merits of revisiting their basic moral assumptions, she proposes that even they can be brought into the fold by a re-framing of their objectives as being “daring to be ethical”.
I am inspired by Ms. Gentile’s approach because I have personally witnessed with myself that I have on a good number of occasions failed to uphold my own deeper convictions when it mattered. Looking back, my failures had their root less in my believing myself to be powerless to change things on my own, than in having to decide on the spot and being unable to come up with a suitable alternative fast enough or being so caught up by my own social and cultural conditioning, that it was very difficult to change my “bad habits”. As individuals, organization and as a civilization we are all captive to some extent to the ingrained routines, traditions and culture we have been part of since childhood. Consequently, even if we rebelled on a number of occasions, we often find ourselves back in our previous, familiar path-dependent behavioral track, especially when we are intricately embedded in this social status-quo with all its rules, assumptions and subtle (or not so subtle!) peer pressure. We yearn for our place in this social context and thus we often inadvertently undermine our own best efforts at reform.

Concretely, what is to be done then? Whereas there is certainly some validity to the bromides that one can only change oneself or that all change begins with ourselves, the above analysis makes it clear that more is required. Individuals need to be supported in their efforts for change and this support includes creating concrete training grounds to hone in our abilities to deal with the wider social challenges we all face. Business Schools, as the premier forging grounds for future leaders in our economic institutions, are clearly indispensible in this respect.

Manuel Heer Dawson

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