Essay on Harvard Business School and Cultural Ambiguity: continued

MBAs and Ethics

Fast Decisions May Be An Illusion

What may seem to an outsider (like a university professor) to be an executive snap decision, is often rooted in years of experience with similar situations and a profound knowledge of a company, technical constraints, competitors, and people.

In my executive career, from time to time an outsider, observing a particular rapid determination of a complex matter, would make an admiring comment, implying that I seemed to have a special talent to process information quickly and decisively.

However, this was usually an illusion, possible because I was completely familiar with the circumstances of a particular problem, having faced similar questions many times before, or having thought about a specific case, in private, for a long time.

In a way, an executive's quick decisions may be compared to the piano player or touch typist who appears to get the job done without thinking or looking at the keys. Experience and practice create an impression of rapid decisions.

The HBS Case Method, however, trains managers in impatience, goosing them to jump the gun and solve problems without solutions, merely to appear 'decisive'.

HBS Does Not Teach People Skills

In the 'real world', the most crucial information that an executive must process relates to the personality, character, and capacity of others in an organization, as well as the psyches of clients, suppliers, and competitors.

This information does not come packaged into neat graphs, tables, and carefully crafted sentences that make up a business school case.

Instead, decisions must be made by observing small hints in the way a person acts, looks, walks, gestures, talks, and deals with others, in personal and business settings.

Under the case method, the student must evaluate 'facts' and other specific information that does not include the character clues that signal that the figures or proposals of one person are biased, while those of another are reliable.

In selecting an executive to run a project, the case method induces a student to choose the candidate with the 'best' curriculum vitae, because more important character clues cannot be considered, or may even give rise to unacceptable connotations, if discussed.

Consequently, the HBS graduate is trained not only to make snap decisions on slight grounds, but also to ignore considerations of personality and character that cannot be backed by paper evidence or that violate politically incorrect limits.

Perhaps nothing can adequately prepare the young executive for the difference in being at the top of an organization and being in the ranks, among one's peers.

The HBS provides no immunity against sycophants, toadies, boot licks, brown-nosers, and fair-weather-friends.

The higher the position and the larger the organization, the greater and more skilled the army of sycophants, toadies, boot licks, brownnosers, sincere admirers, fair-weather-friends, and lickspittles that flatter, fawn, and pump up the ego of the boss, presenting information in their own interests or what they think the boss wants to hear.

The proficiency and subtlety of the best of these courtiers is truly amazing, making it extremely difficult for those unprepared to distinguish truth from fiction.

But there is no course in Toadies 101 at the Harvard Business School, while, as in the old Brazilian carnival song, 'O cordão dos puxa-saco cada vez aumenta mais' — the band of sycophants is ever greater.

The Blind Leading the Blind

However, the most debilitating aspect of the HBS Case Method is the way in which these business stories are discussed and examined by students.

Cases are debated by ninety students gathering for two or three hours a day in Harvard's 'distinctive amphitheater classrooms' where, as the brochure stated, the professor acts as a conductor orchestrating an 'incredible rapid-fire intellectual symphony, playing off all ninety minds in the room'.

Analysis of a case is achieved by 'rich process of interaction in which everyone teaches and everyone learns.'

Considering that the average age of the HBS student is twenty-seven, and that these 'student-teachers' have with only a few years of business experience, if that, and considering that the professor is unlikely to have had enough 'real world' experience to have accumulated more worldly wisdom than the students, the 'everybody teaches-everybody learns' paradigm is a recipe for developing opinionated pseudo-experts in business administration.

The 'everybody teaches-everybody learns' paradigm is a recipe for developing opinionated pseudo-experts

Furthermore, considering that HBS students are selected for being at the top of the bell curve in intelligence and are predisposed to put personal ambition first, determined to advance their careers to quickly repay the high cost of entry, the group dynamics of ninety aggressive youths seeking arguments that sway their peers and a professor, lost in a fog where there is no right and wrong, must lead to an ethically-impaired, group-thinking generation of mandarins that may alter the course of capitalism.

Adam Smith and the Case Method

The problems presented by the HBS Case Method might have been of interest to Adam Smith, if he were alive.

Smith, although famous for his seminal book on economics, Wealth of Nations, thought of himself as a teacher of ethics and hoped that he would be remembered more for his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, than for the second.

By observing the relatively homogeneous Presbyterian society of eighteenth century Scotland, Adam Smith concluded that ethics reflected a sociological milieu, in which each individual strives to exhibit behavior that gains the approval of his or her peers, and vice versa, thereby creating community standards of morality.

Such standards were more easily reached and are more likely to be specific and no-nonsense when a single church is dominant and when most people are openly devout.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith: no cultural ambiguity

By 2004, Harvard, like most secular universities, having renounced its religious heritage, had adopted a slippery code of moral relativism that left no hand-hold for right and wrong.

In a business sense, acceptable standards of ethical conduct were to be measured day to day in the latest financial reports, in a person's recent annual income, and in opinions of writers in the pages of Fortune, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal.

Adam Smith, observing these budding masters of business administration, bouncing ideas off one another in Harvard's distinctive amphitheater classrooms for months on end, would probably have expected these youngsters to learn from one another and to create community standards, which in this environment would lead to a conforming ethical ambiguity, greed, over-reaching ambition, absence of any sense of duty, and bland selfishness.

Furthermore, due to the demographic composition of the class, the ethics developed would be more appropriate for employees than for entrepreneurs.

Business Morals and Cultural Ambiguity

The heterogeneous, international mix of students, swirling together in Harvard's heady cultural relativism, must eventually drain away any lingering sense of patriotic or home-community responsibility that could give these young executives pause in shutting down a factory or sending jobs to another country.

By the end of the twentieth century, it became plain to many that business without ethics creates problems for society, as Adam Smith had already noted two centuries earlier.

However, having cast aside religion as a framework for morality in exchange for ethical-relativism, secular societies dominated by employees had landed in a quandary.

The International Business Ethics Institute described the muddle in this way:

“Understanding the landscape of business ethics can be problematic. The field is vast, often encompassing such concerns as corporate governance, reputation management, accurate accounting and audits, fair labor practices and environmental stewardship to name but a few.

In fact, the field addresses the entire scope of responsibilities - or obligations - that a company [sic] has to each of its stakeholders: those who have a vested interest - or stake - in the decisions and actions of a company, like clients, employees, shareholders, suppliers and the community. …

Business ethics is a form of applied ethics. It aims at inculcating a sense within a company's employee population of how to conduct business responsibly.

Because the term 'ethics' can pose problems in an international context, i.e., the term does not translate well and it can be difficult to find a common understanding of the term, some organizations choose to recast the concept of business ethics through such other terms as integrity, business practices or responsible business conduct.”

Business Ethics Primer”, International Business Ethics Institute web site, September 29, 2020,

This excerpt reveals a common perception that 'business ethics' was a problem of corporations, rather than of the individuals that run corporations.

Business ethics is seen as a management chore – a new kind of touchy-feeling conundrum to be discussed at seminars and resolved by inserting a few words in a corporate 'mission statement' or by hiring consultants that might help inculcate 'within a company's employee population' an undefined sense of 'how to conduct business responsibly'.

Laws are never a good substitute for morality and once a large and diverse society embraces ethical-relativism, it may be impossible to escape the consequences.

Essay: continued >

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