Most business managers are Marxists. Not Karl Marx, but Harpo. In 1912, Harpo Marx was told his career was in jeopardy when he opened his mouth. So he performed as a mute for virtually the remainder of his professional life. This is often what managers do when they imagine using moral language at work. They fear it’ll jeopardize their career, so they perform as moral mutes instead.

Harpo’s band of brothers began as a musical group. Early on they also tried their hand at comedy and were a hit. Harpo, however, couldn’t compete with Chico and Groucho’s verbal sparring. In subsequent skits, Harpo had no lines – something he resented. So Harpo ad-libbed his own material. A reviewer mentioned that Harpo was talented at pantomimes but he ruined his performance when he opened his mouth. Harpo took the hint and went mute.

Frederick Bird and James Waters have observed the same phenomenon in business. They’ve coined the phrase “moral muteness.”1 Even when business managers are acting for moral reasons, they fear jeopardizing their career and instead talk about what’s “practical,” “good for the organization,” and making “economic good sense.” Moral terms like “we ought to do this” are viewed as illegitimate or awkward or backward.

Researchers Joseph Badaracco and Allen Webb argue that moral muteness has long been melded into college curriculums. A decade ago, they interviewed Harvard MBA graduates about what they see in modern corporate culture. One student, representative of the majority of graduates, commented, “First, performance is what really counts, so make your numbers. Second, be loyal and show that you’re a team player. Third, don’t break the law. Fourth, don’t overinvest in ethical behavior.”2 Result? Marxist managers.

An Aspen Institute study yielded similar results. A survey of about 2,000 graduates of the top 13 business schools found that B-school education not only fails to improve the moral character of the students, it actually weakens it. The study examined student attitudes three times while they were working toward their MBAs: upon entering, at the end of the first year, and upon graduating. Those who believed that maximizing shareholder values was the prime responsibility of a corporation increased from 68 percent upon entrance to 82 percent by the end of the first year. The survey indicated that students gained confidence in things like controlling costs but lost confidence in a moral code.

This is exactly what we should expect. Philip Rieff said we live in an unprecedented age, a “self-dismantling” of our historic culture rooted in a moral order. College students are exposed to a “radically skeptical knowledge industry” that “has been built upon the ruins of sacred truth.”3 We’re being educated into imbecility, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it. A university education has long been part of “a vast self-knowledge industry that is the exact equivalent of invincible ignorance,” Rieff said. Students are taught a definition of reality that makes an absolute distinction between facts and values.4 Facts are the province of science and business while values are the province of religion. Facts are propositions; values are preferences. Fact language includes economics. Values language includes ethics. Students graduate with an unshakable faith that using moral language even remotely hinting at faith has no place in the workplace.

This is why most managers only imagine negative consequences if they use moral language. They see moral talk as a threat to harmony – it feels intrusive and can invite cycles of mutual recrimination. “Who made you God?” Or it’s viewed as a threat to efficiency – it seems squishy, soft, and inexact. “How does this stuff make a difference? Let’s get practical!” Moral talk is also viewed as a threat to effectiveness and profitability – it sounds esoteric, idealistic, and moralistic. “Give me a break!”

If, however, managers thought more broadly than their own narrow ambitions, they’d see that moral muteness has contributed to our current economic crisis. When Enron was collapsing, the company designed and maintained a phony trading room on the sixth floor of their downtown headquarters. It was designed to trick analysts into believing business was booming. “It was an elaborate Hollywood production that we went through every year,” said one former Enron executive. Yet there is no record of any manager saying “We should not be doing this!” They instead feared that speaking up would jeopardize their careers. The phony room was practical and made economic good sense. It turns out Enron’s moral muteness was merely a precursor to Worldcom, Bear Stearns, Countrywide Financial, Broadcom, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and so on.

Later in his life, Harpo did say five or six words in a film. Everyone knew Harpo could speak, so this wasn’t news. The real news is, given the events of the last decade, nearly 20 percent of the Harvard Business School graduating class of 2009 have signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.5 If they stitch moral language like “we ought to do this” into the everyday warp and woof of work, they’ll likely discover ought is the beginning of a sequence heard in the everyday warp and woof of life: ought-is-can-will. It’s a definition of reality anchored in creation-fall-redemption-restoration, the gospel. The M.B.A. Oath is a step in the right direction. Faith communities ought to pray that Harvard graduates do good and do well.

1 Frederick B. Bird and James A. Waters, “The Moral Muteness of Managers,” California Management Review, no. 1 (Fall 1989): 73-88.
2 Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. and Allen P. Webb, “Business Ethics: A View From the Trenches,” California Management Review, Winter, 1995, p. 11.
3 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006).
4 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York, NY: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 207.
5 Leslie Wayne, “A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality,” The New York Times, May 30, 2009.

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5 Responses to “Marxist Managers”

  1. George Hepburn says:

    Mike,

    Would it be a good idea t oforward this to the leadership team at Dynasplint? Or would be be too much in the face of those who do not share our Christian faith? In more than one way, even if they have little to no faith, how can they deny that this defines reality?

  2. Merrill says:

    Mike,
    I don’t share your dismal view of management. It is only anecdotal, but I was in the Air Force 11 years, owned a small biz for 6 and worked in the Defense Industry for 5; I also worked lots of part-time jobs before college, and I don’t recall any immoral managers who asked me to do unethical things on the job (I would have quit anyway). Even the guys who were obviously living an amoral lifestyle in their personal lives seemed to be bound by a moral code on the job. Of course, I never worked in sales … 🙂

    I would not be so quick to laud a manager seeking to “serve the greater good” by doing something other than “maximizing shareholder value.” If a manager is doing anything other than maximizing shareholder value, he is stealing from the owners of his company, the shareholders. If he wants to donate the corporation’s profits to his home church, he is using other peoples’ money. He should donate his own money. If the shareholders want to donate, that is their option after they receive their share of the profits. Of course this also applies to environmental causes, etc. Unless the company has some kind of fully-disclosed charter stating that they are donating a percentage of profits to some cause, then they have no business making the donation, no matter how much it contributes to “the greater good.” I suppose “marketing” or “good will” might be a reason for a donation, but only to the extent that it increases shareholder value through additional future sales.

    Managers who desire to participate in the greater good should read a little Adam Smith.
    Their diligent work improving their own part of the corporation is the way they can bring about the greatest good, even without that good being part of their intention.

  3. James Stuart says:

    It is interesting that “serving the greater good” immediately engenders a money focused response as if rightly dividing the money were the key greater good. I might suggest that the “greater good” is to treat employees, associates, counterparts and every stakeholder with respect and deal ethically with all. Mathew 7:12 might be a good place to start – “do to others what you would have them do to you.”

    I’ve seen and experienced the ethical vacuum. I’ve seen an executive level evangelical (top evangelical liberal arts college) MBA (top 5 MBA program) protect subordinates who engaged in overt racial discrimination, engage in racial discrimination against another employee, protect a corporate thief and ostracize the “whistle blower,” seen my work either stolen or held up to be mocked, all to advance the executive’s standing with the owners. No one objected as it might impact the profit sharing decision. Discrimination was condoned so that individual’s wealth would be maximized. Everyone went mute. I was able arranged for legal counsel for the first discriminated employee since by then I had been removed. In other environments I’ve seen my superior engage in bank fraud and after the Controller was discovered stealing, it was made clear that part of my duties as his replacement were to help the boss engage in tax fraud. I quit and reported the bank fraud to the bank. In these two examples, one evangelical and the other Jewish, the first sought to abuse subordinates to maximize not shareholder value, but personal net worth. The second sought to maximize shareholder value by dealing unethically with his bank, the IRS and his employees as he was the sole owner. Maximizing shareholder value is not the ultimate good.

    The ethical standards articulated in Scripture don’t speak about maximizing shareholder value, but rather it speaks of how we treat God and others. Matthew 22:37-40 sets two criteria for our behavior – Love God and love others. Money is simply a tool – a fact. The issues are deeper than money. Managers who desire to participate in the greater good should read a little Scripture.

  4. John Seel says:

    Two quick responses to this discussion:

    First, Metzger’s critique is not about managers, but management. At issue is whether an attitude of control over employees is based on an accurate assessment of human nature, and if not, does it undermine human flourishing in the work place? Do we adopt the same attitudes toward our children when we return home? Does applying management principles at home promote our children’s delight or despair? Does it make them more productive? Does it increase their loyalty to their home and parents?

    Second, by reducing the purpose of business to shareholder optimization, one tends to ignore the many other stakeholders in the corporation. It is this tendency that has led American businesses to adopt short-term thinking and an amoral bottom-line mentality that has eclipsed the cultivation of spiritual capital.

    Profit is like air, necessary but not sufficient for meaningful living or successful corporate life. It can be argued that publicly-held companies are easily forced to conform to such tendencies. But surely, privately-held companies can be about more than mere investor optimization. They can attend to employee satisfaction, investments in the community, and even investments in future generations. Many young people are tempted to leave business for non-profit enterprises, because there they are able to find meaning in their work. It would be far better to be those who make our business environment and all who come in contact with it, suffused with meaning. This begins with rethinking the very idea that we should “manage” people.

  5. Merrill says:

    That is the great thing about business, if you have happy/fulfilled workers, they will be more productive and the business will be more “successful.” In a public concern “succes” is return to the shareholders according to the charter. If the charter says profit, then it is stealing if you purposely reduce profit for your own selfish purposes of donating to your favorite charity. If you want to have a charter with other goals, then you can work to achieve those goals, which may be environmental, charitable, employee compensation, etc. You just have to define them ahead of time so you aren’t being dishonest with other peoples’ money.

    I think that if anything, “management culture” is much more employee-focused today than it used to be. Even the entry-level training managers get talks about building teams, working with people, helping them achieve their goals, and all that. It might not be successful in many cases, but I generally think that the best managers of people are rewarded in most industries. If your team does well, you will advance, and the top people are often very good at managing other people. YMMV

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