Saturday, September 23, 2006

Moral Mazes

By now you've probably already seen or heard about this Rutgers study of grad students and cheating that found that MBAs are far and away the worst (or best, depending on your point of view) at it. I've had my fun with The Boy and spouse, both recipients of said degree, and you've likely e-mailed it to your MBA friends and relatives. The excuse is that competition is just so intense for this degree and everybody else is cheating and you'd be stupid not to and . . . and . . . and. Please. This just complements all those studies of undergrads that the only students who predominantly act like econ theory says people act (ahistorical, self-serving, short-term benefit, a--holes, etc.) are econ majors. Disciplines and careers see an awful lot of self-selection so it's not the competition, it's the mirror. (Really, is anyone surprised by the HP revelations?)

Let me temper that, however, at least as it may apply to others in business, those who majored in other things but now find themselves in that climate and forced to adapt to it. Human behavior is always the outcome of a blend of person and environment, from their genes to their organizations and networks. When things like HP happen (or Enron or Arthur Anderson or . . . .), it's not just because personnel got MBAs or slept through what passed for ethics ed or need to pay off their beemers. The nature of organizations and what they have to do to survive creates a web of imperatives that lead their inhabitants into what they might never otherwise do or thought themselves capable of. They find themselves, in other words, in mazes they have to weave themselves through, what one might call "moral mazes."

Actually, one has called them that. His name is Robert Jackall and he wrote a book 18 years ago with that title, Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. 18 years ago. His basic premise was this--we're all told in this country, and as a motivational tool in every organization, that hard work will lead to success. The implication is that the organized system within which we seek success is structured to reward this work. Now stop laughing.

Which is his point. That's demonstrably not how life, in orgs, in schools (hello, MBAs), in, well, anywhere practically, works. It's far more who you know, how you sell (aka pimp) yourself, and who happens to be in the room when the lucky break occurs (or the hooey hits you know what). So, Jackall asks, what happens when people in orgs disconnect work from success and tie it to all those other levers? Here's how he puts it:

"What becomes of the social morality of the corporation--the everyday rules-in-use that people play by--when there is no fixed or, one might say, objective standard of excellence to explain how and why winners are separated from also-rans, how and why some people succeed and others fail? What rules do people fashion to interact with one another when they feel that, instead of ability, talent, and dedicated service to an organization, politics, adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion are the real sorters of people into sheep and goats?"

From his inquiry he ended up with "managers' rules for survival and success," the heart of what he called "the bureaucratic ethic." He concludes that "bureaucratic work causes people to bracket, while at work, the moralities that they might hold outside the workplace or that they might adhere to privately and to follow instead the prevailing morality of their particular organizational situation. As a former vice-president of a large firm says: 'What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation [emphasis in original]." (And clearly in more governments than we like to think about.)

This is clearly not news now, or even in the Reagan ("greed is good") '80s. As more recent books like The Cheating Culture and
Making Good make clear, the view is, if anything, more pervasive today, particularly among young people waiting to move into our leadership roles who told Howard Gardner and company that there'll be time to be ethical "later, when I'm successful." Do you really need anything else to show you why our businesses, our governments, our media, our academe, our culture have adopted "Survivor" as their operating philosophies? Why our future will likely not see improvement? Why Bushnev and his new-Bolsheviks came to be and have been able to survive and even retain 40% approval ratings from a society so fundamentally, let's just say it, immoral?

I've gone overboard? People, we're debating whether waterboarding is torture, much less legal.

Jackall's book is the first book any serious consideration of morality in action would start with, in whatever organizational context. It's very well-written, funny, thorough, and one of the scariest you'll ever finish. Like Joey on "Friends" with Stephen King, you might want to put it in the freezer a few times before you get done. It certainly should be the first book any MBA student would be required to read.

I had to show it to The Boy and spouse.