Management, professionalism and ethics

In a previous post we drew attention to the work of the scholar Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School who put forward the idea that the teaching of management had been corrupted and diverted by a particularly narrow view of the role of managers promoted by the Chicago monetarists. Instead of managers seeing themselves as members of a professional discipline, Khurana argued, they had become ‘hired hands’, rentable by shareholders looking to maximise their investment. As the fortunes of managers became more closely tied into the fortunes of shareholders, so they were able to abandon their commitment to a broader set of stakeholders, to their own discipline, in order to pursue  self-interest.

Khurana has recently supported an initiative by a group of graduating MBAs at HBS who wanted to sign up to the equivalent of a Hippocratic oath. In swearing the oath the graduating managers would agree to ‘serve the greater good’, to ‘act with utmost integrity’ and to guard against ‘decisions and behaviour that advance my own narrow ambitions, but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves.’ The Economist magazine which covered the story indulged in some of the sniggering that they accused other critics of giving in to. Who were these graduates from an elite institution who were just preparing themselves for high-flying jobs in blue chip institutions to lecture to anyone else, and aren’t we all motivated by greed and self interest?

Well, to a certain extent, yes, but that’s not all that motivates us, and whilst we might agree that swearing an oath doesn’t amount to much, it is a start and puts the discussion of values and ethical standards back on the agenda for discussion.

The moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre has also considered the relationship between institutions, ethics and professions in his book After Virtue. Along with Aristotle he puts forward the idea that discussions of virtue must always accompany consideration of what constitutes professional practice. Without this shared ethical discussion, he argues, we may descend into what he terms ’emotivism’ where we hold back from making ethical judgements on the erroneous basis that everyone’s ethical universe is independent and separate. Without a discussion of values we may end up using any means to achieve ends. This is one of the criticisms that he has of modern management: that in eschewing a discussion of values, what we hold to be good, it simply becomes manipulative justifying unacceptable practices by pointing to ‘results’.

The development of a sense of professionalism arises in a complex relationship of virtues, institutions and practices, according to MacIntyre. Without institutions practices are unsustainable: nonetheless, without a discussion of virtues within the emerging professions, institutions can corrupt practices, as Khurana has outlined in his book. The virtues that McIntyre has in mind are not so dissimilar to the oath that graduating MBAs have articulated above, and involve justice, courage and truthfulness.

Entering a practice involves first engaging in a discipline with all the meaning that this word implies: a disciple is someone who follows. Becoming a practitioner will mean submitting ourselves to the best standards that have been achieved so far by other practitioners. But this discipline is not slavish: practitioners are also a community who discipline each other by entering into discussion with a sense of justice, courage and truthfulness.  This enables them to go on reestablishing the practice and the new rules and practices that need to be created if the practice is to continue to be relevant to the society it serves. MacIntyre argues that a profession is concerned with producing goods which are intrinsic to the community of practitioners who make up that profession: for example, let’s say that civil servants are committed to the idea of public service, which then becomes an organising principle of the discussion which helps to form the civil service as a discipline. The pursuit of external goods, such as personal wealth or creating wealth for shareholders is an extrinsic good incommensurable with the practice under discussion.

Putting Khurana and MacIntyre together one might conclude that setting shareholders’ interests and wealth creation above all else has contributed to some very unjust social and economic outcomes, but has also corrupted management as a profession. It should be able to demonstrate its own integrity as a developing community engaged in the discussion of practice, ethics and standards aimed at producing goods which are intrinsic to the practice. In that sense, trying to sketch out what might be a restatement of what we might mean by management as a profession and the virtues that might be a part of that undertaking is a good start.


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