The Thought Leader Series: Robert A. Giacalone on being “Broken when Entering”

Kathy Lund Dean
Kathy Lund Dean
By Kathy Lund Dean

Key Insight: Bob Giacalone and Mark Promislo co-authored an article in the most recent Academy of Management Learning & Education, entitled, “Broken when Entering: The Stigmatization of Goodness and Business Ethics Education.” In this month’s column, I first react to their work, and then share some of my conversation with Bob about the article. I also fielded some reactions from Kabrina Krebel Chang of Boston University, who is directing the School of Management’s comprehensive new ethics education effort.

Introduction

In a departure for this column, this month I am writing about teaching ethics itself as a content area, rather than ethical issues in teaching, my normal bailiwick. After reading Bob Giacalone’s newest AMLE article about students being ethically broken when they come to us, I wanted to write about two particular challenges we face when teaching business ethics: coming clean about the organizational costs to behaving ethically, and what we can do in the classroom to acknowledge these costs and move forward. Bob and Mark argue that through the use of ‘normal’ business school language, modeling, and metrics, we perpetuate ‘broken’ student perspectives and behaviors with respect to ethics. They say that ethics education is tougher than we already knew it was, because students aren’t even coming in at the ground floor—they are coming into our classrooms with persistent and troubling assumptions about what ‘business’ is about and what their leadership responsibilities are. I wanted to talk with Bob about some of their suggested ‘fixes’ to this problem that they articulate at the end of the article, and I also wanted to know his continuing thoughts on this topic.

Bob is one of the most well-published and thoughtful scholarly leaders in both ethics education as well as in the management, spirituality and religion domain. He has just accepted the Daniel’s Chair in Business Ethics at the University of Denver, leaving Temple University where he served on the faculty for nine years. I have enjoyed working with Bob for many years in the Academy’s MSR group, and I was the invited papers editor for the Journal of Management, Spirituality, and Religion when Bob was the editor-in-chief, roles we just finished serving in 2012. Bob is no stranger to provocative articles in AMLE. His 2004 article, “A Transcendent Business Education for the 21st Century” (Vol 3, no.4, 415-420) is a staple in calls for transforming business education by challenging status quo metrics of success. The Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organizational Performance, now in its second edition (2010), was co-edited with Carole Jurkiewicz and is among the most-cited scholarly sources in the entire MSR domain. And in his spare time, he and Mark Promislo co-edited the Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior: Implications for Individual Well-Being, out in 2012. He has been teaching business ethics for 28 years.

Kabrina Krebel Chang and her holistic re-framing of how Boston University’s School of Management is approaching business ethics were featured in a recent Wall Street Journal article. She is a lawyer who teaches business law and ethics at BU, and her research includes how social media is fundamentally influencing employment decisions. She has been teaching ethics for five years. The integrated buy-in from the BU faculty was so interesting, I contacted Kabrina for more details and she has been a terrific resource (and source of hope—more on that later) for the enterprise of teaching ethics.

Broken when Entering (BWE)

The essential thesis from BWE is that not only are students entering b-schools soundly unequipped for ethical reasoning and moral decision-making, we faculty can make it much worse by the language we use and the norms we perpetuate. The materialism that underlies our entire cultural values set and subsequent vocabulary pervades our students’ holistic sense of what business is and does, and skews their expectations about their role in the business world. Bob and Mark describe the language b-school professors use that supports that skewed sense and in fact degrades it further, and then describe the “baggage” students carry as they enter our classrooms. Such ideological burdens include “a mindset that disparages virtue,” “demonizing those needing help,” and “the stigmatization of goodness,” all of which serve to undermine our efforts to develop students’ moral selves. Indeed, research has offered “depressing” evidence that students lack the ability to understand situations as requiring ethical reasoning and the language with which to describe them. BWE ends with some suggested techniques to counteract both language and baggage, and it’s there where I think some conversation should continue.

In reading BWE, I was struck by the starkness of the language they use in describing our broken culture—how plainly they called it out. We use this language to embed certain norms in business schools—norms the authors say are at the root of b-school professors’ pernicious complicity in furthering bad behavior in organizations. “Econophonics” is a “powerful, dominating language in which money is used to dictate and justify all actions…” while “potensiphonics” is also a dominant language “but its emphasis is on power and supremacy.” (both p. 88). Potensiphonics is Bob’s creation from the Latin root for power, “potentia.” And while I understand the materialism focus as mainly operational in for-profit organizations, both econophonics and potensiphonics have made their way into almost every organizational space. Witness, for example, the over-the-top show of power and authority on the UC Davis campus with the now-infamous pepper spray incident, or the sad, sad goings-on at Penn State.

In every organizational role I have had, whether as a corporate manager or business owner, as a researcher or as a consultant, as a teacher or committee member, the scene tends to be the same. Nothing will fundamentally change with respect to ethical behavior in organizations until we engage with the compelling incentives that reward bad behavior and the shockingly short-term time horizon that now rules American organizational practices. So, cultural norms and short-termism are key aspects of my ethics courses with respect to the ‘why’ of unethical behavior. But BWE goes further- the language we use in business schools encompasses our students like the Seahaven dome under which Truman Burbank was raised in The Truman Show. Like Truman, students accept what is around them as ‘truth’ and when we seamlessly integrate both types of language as normal, how can students ever get a plausibly different view of the range of business activities and behaviors available to them? They can’t. And that is one of the reasons why we ethics instructors may be seen as hopelessly out of touch, or experienced as idealists with little relevant knowledge to impart.

The “baggage” the authors characterize seems to come at our students in both directions: not only is real need vilified as a state of being deserving of our attention, but neediness’ positive sister, goodness, is also rejected as being built on a moral principle threatening individualized actions that can lead to wealth and power and status (p. 92). Our society’s culture gets students, if you will, coming and going. Having a lasting effect on how my students view their business roles and responsibilities is an exercise in futility if I don’t help students drop those bags.

Bob and Mark also make an argument about the sinister nature of being oriented toward values-based behavior: “..[others’] commitment to virtues over purely economic concerns creates the impression of a personal agenda that makes them unpredictable” (p. 93). So it’s not just that some people act in virtuous ways that others may think are ridiculous as they pursue their own agendas toward wealth and power, but that the virtuous themselves represent a disruption to carefully cultivated bottom-line norms that may be emotionally disconfirming to the extent that virtuous employees must be stopped.

The costs of ethical behavior

Bob and Mark talk about being transparent with our students about the costs associated with morally-grounded behavior, just as we might warn students about belonging to a counterculture during the OB discussion of organizational culture’s social control mechanism. Ethical and principled behavior is de-stabilizing to important, instrumental relationships in business, and there are costs to that.

BWE discussed those costs overtly, recommending we talk with students about them too. Here is the first place I wanted Bob and Kabrina to weigh in. I asked both of them questions related to BWE, in the interest of extending what BWE has to offer us.

On the personal nature of and potential costs associated with ethical decisions:

Bob: I would say that virtuous people in organizations represent as much of a threat to the status quo as incompetent people, probably more. The reason is that, while incompetence threatens the overall functioning of the organization, virtuous people may screw me directly, so self-interest is also built in. If you do something that is virtuous that causes me to lose a bonus or miss my numbers, then you have done harm to me personally, just because you had the audacity to do the right thing. So you must be stopped. If you’re not stopped, you’re a clear and present danger to my welfare.

Ethics isn’t free. There is a cost to it. You make a choice every day as to whether you’re going to pay. For me, it’s a matter of every day choosing to define yourself in a way that says ‘This is what I stand for, and this is what I am willing to pay for standing for that.’ I’m not judgmental about it. While I may not like what he does, I can respect any thief who can admit he’s a thief; I can respect the fact that he knows who he is, is up front about it, and owns up to it. What I cannot respect are those who say they are virtuous but then turn around and do things against what they say they are. That, I can’t live with. So when we talk, I tell my students that and get them to respond.

Kabrina: I am at a b-school in the Northeast and students are uber-motivated. Being in a business school, sadly I take it as a given that we will need to break many of the money=happiness equation. Breaking the equation has to happen in more than one class, and they have to see real examples. I use a bunch of different examples that have been effective in getting students talking.

A long time ago there was an article in the New York Times about the unemployability of whistleblowers so they read that. When we talk about virtue in my ethics class I use other examples. One is Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk on the Loss of Wisdom where he talks about the job description of hospital janitors and how willing we are to look past people like that.  Another is a video of a guy in Cincinnati getting beaten up in a parking lot robbery and two guys come to help him. It turns out the two heroes are homeless men and in interviews with them they start talking about the stigma of being homeless. One last example is hearing the 911 [telephone] operator pleading with staff at a retirement community after an elderly woman goes into cardiac arrest and no one will perform CPR. Not even the nurses! The 911 operator is baffled as to why no one will help her.

 

Bob’s and Kabrina’s examples of how costs are ‘paid’ and how people make those personal calculations can be powerful and offer students a kind of inoculation approach to ethics decisions: if they can think about certain types of situations beforehand and test out possible avenues of action, they may be more ready to do the right thing when an actual ‘test’ comes along.

So what can we DO?

The other aspect of BWE I wanted to explore were the ‘fixes’ and teaching suggestions offered: increase critical thinking skills, leverage the student voices who do speak up against dominant language, and model what we want to see from our students. Of those, I found the leveraging student voice suggestion most potentially difficult in practice. I worry about foisting students into an unwilling spotlight, and having them endure potential derision and attacks from their classmates as representatives of that de-stabilizing worldview. Tokenism is no fun, and is usually ineffective at really challenging prevailing views. When I raised that question, both Bob and Kabrina had comments:

Bob: Behaving ethically is complex. What we’re claiming we want people to do is not clearly understood. There are both direct and indirect effects of choosing any behavioral path X. You can’t say easily that doing X or Y is the right thing because you may not know! I see only direct impact– I can’t see indirect impacts like, I don’t see what happens to you in the community, or when you go back to your family. Mark and I have collected information about the impacts of serious stress on not only the people themselves under stress, but on the people around them. There is a systems aspect to ethical decisions we haven’t thought that much about. And we need to.

While we tend to look at ethics as something different, it’s simply another aspect of life. It’s a decision-making aspect. People do it all the time. Yet we believe in it as a one-off experience, like if we make a bad decision it will stick with us forever. And that’s just not the case. We don’t do a good enough job telling students that they will make mistakes but that they can learn from them, that it’s expected, and that’s critical thinking and taking the risk to speak up in class.

With respect to the 2nd recommendation, you could get stories from students in advance about the ethical dilemmas they have faced, and how they have had to confront ethical issues. Have them write them down ahead of time, talk about them in class, anonymously, about what they did. Talk about the amount of courage it took. Talk about the amount of altruism it took to do that. Then look at the impact—what would have happened if they had not done that? We can talk about the good students have done in glowing terms, even anonymously, as a message against dominant language they encounter.

Kabrina: My focus is on the critical thinking skills–getting them to broaden their horizons when it comes to decision making will have a real impact on their ability to make decisions that will take into account the betterment of people and not just the betterment of their business. [BWE] mentions that in a few paragraphs at the end. I am reluctant to leverage those few students who do focus on the human side of decisions; I wouldn’t want to embarrass them or pit the class against them.  I welcome that voice in class, but I don’t think I could use them to counter the other arguments all of the time.  That could be a lot of pressure for them and they may be embarrassed.

For example, two women who were really standouts in my freshmen class seemed not so burdened by the ‘baggage’ Bob and Mark talked about. I incorporated their views by getting on their side; they were not embarrassed if I said the things they wanted to say. I sided with them whether I agreed with them or not. So there were three of us rather than one challenging these prevailing views. I advocated for the alternative view by adopting that view, sort of playing a role on purpose so they were not the lone wolves. I bet many of us already do this and I almost never simply say, “You’re wrong” but start from what they are saying that’s right and we work on it together. But even the ones who are burdened should not be shut down, because then they react defensively. My take on ethics and the take I employ now and will certainly take with the freshman class is not to teach them right and wrong but to teach them that there’s more to think about with a decision. I expect them to be burdened coming in, but I cannot ostracize them when they are 18. My job is to help them broaden their perspective by teaching them analytic tools.

Here’s why I am hopeful

Where is the hope? Why, if BWE is right, do we persist in “ethics education?”

While we cannot control students’ baggage and we have little control over the monolith of our society’s culture, we still can take action. We have to be the ones who tell students about these costs, and help them think through who they want to be, and what lines in the sand they will draw for themselves and their own self-respect. We need to be the ones who demonstrate the process of making good decisions, and we have to model it. Programmatic immersion like the BU School of Management effort, starting with freshmen, offers great hope in iteratively exposing students to different language, different business models, different goals.

And, similar to the one-off oddities that Truman experiences in his otherwise perfectly seamless life/show, we can hope that if they happen often enough, and such alternatives are offered by people students know and trust, then like Truman, students will eventually realize that there are alternatives to the dominating cultural ‘rules’ that prevail and start to question, start to think for themselves.

Discussion questions:

What examples of econophonics and potensiphonics do you hear in your own college of business?

What would alternative language and business paradigms look like for you? How would you talk about them outside of the “burdened” language presented in BWE?

What has happened in your classrooms when students have challenged the status-quo of business norms? How did you manage that, and what might you do differently now?

How can you support ethical critical thinking skills for your students, in ways that make sense to them? What examples might you use?

 

I welcome your experiences and responses.

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