What if... Moral motivation makes you a poor business person?
At some point way back in history, my wife and I were raising three elementary school aged kids. They each participated in the annual “Odyssey of the Mind” competition, designed to promote creativity among students. The central ideology of the program was “If it doesn’t say you can’t, you can.” My wife coached both their teams (I actually know how to do math—two of our kids were on the same team). Seeing the incredible amount of time and effort she put into that, I quickly opted out of coaching, and volunteered to be a judge at the local level on the day of competition.
During the local competition one year, a perennially high-performing team (from the wealthy part of town—let’s call it Team A) broke one of the rules in the competition I was helping judge, the “vehicle problem.” I was the leader of a six or eight-person team of judges, who were tasked the knowing the rules that year’s vehicle problem inside and out. We convened immediately after each team competed, to score that team’s efforts and skill in solving the problem. We all agreed that Team A had indeed broken one rule, and we penalized it, according to the scoring sheet. As a result, Team A, which had won this problem set several years in a row, came in second, and was thus ineligible to go to the next level of competition.
The parents and coaches of Team A filed a complaint with the site’s coordinators, and my judging team was asked to meet with the coordinators, so they could respond to the complainants. After lengthy discussion, we all agreed that Team A had indeed broken the rule, its score was properly penalized, and it did not win the competition that year.
A few days later, I received a call at home (further dating this story, there were no cell phones yet), in which the head of the local competition told me that she had checked with the national board of Odyssey of the Mind, and confirmed that my panel of judges had scored Team A correctly. However, the parents and school administrators of Team A were raising such a stink about the judging that the local group and national board approved it to move on to the next level of competition, along with the team that rightfully won at the local level. Feeling good that my panel had judged the problem correctly, I basically said, “Fine, your decision to allow Team A doesn’t reflect on my judges, so you can do whatever you want.”
My wife, overhearing my side of the conversation, blew up at me. This was literally one of the worst, and longest-lasting fights of our marriage. I couldn’t understand why she was so angry, and she couldn’t understand why I was so clueless.
OK, so none of that story actually pertains to what I want to talk about, except in the most tangential way. I tell you that story because, once I figured out what my wife was so upset about, I had to find an explanation for why I was completely oblivious to the problem she correctly identified—Why should Team A get to go on to the next level when it was defeated, fair and square, by another team? More importantly, what would the members of the winning team (remember, these are elementary school kids) think when they saw Team A at the next level, also? Either I was a complete cretin, or something hid that element of the situation from me.
Fast forward a few years, and I am in my PhD program, searching for a dissertation topic. Fortunately, I ran across the work of James Rest, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota. As a moral psychologist, Rest had developed a model for understanding what it takes to actually behave ethically. Note that this is a far different endeavor than what most of the field of ethics is about—how to make decisions about “the right thing to do.” He developed the Four Component Model of Moral Behavior, in which he contends that there are, at a minimum, four things that people must do in order to act morally (note that I will use “ethically” and “morally” interchangeably). These components are:
Moral sensitivity (I call it moral awareness) – the moral agent becomes aware of a situation that may have an ethical dimension to it
Moral judgment – how we go about thinking of possible responses to the issue, and reasoning to a conclusion about “the right thing to do”
Moral motivation – unlike the type of “motivation” most psychologists (and managers) think of, here Rest is referring to how we rank “doing the right thing” compared to all the other motivations we may have
Moral character (I refer to this as moral courage) – this is having the willpower to carry through on one’s moral judgement and actually do the action.
According to Rest, the moral agent must complete all four steps successfully, or ethical behavior will not occur.
To complete my Odyssey of the Mind story, I was able to avoid the cretin label and see that I was morally unaware of the implications of the decision to allow Team A to move on (while still leaving the question of why I didn’t see the problem unanswered). So, this is the happy end to the story, right? I could reclaim a more positive view of myself, I found a dissertation topic, got my PhD, and have been able to do something I love ever since.
In some sense, yes. But I now wrestle with an ongoing dilemma—if we understand Rest’s model and know what it takes to behave morally, why do we continue to see so much immoral behavior in our institutions, business, government, and the non-profit sector? I want to specifically focus on the business sector, since that is where I teach, and I am convinced that it is the most influential social institution in society today.
My assertion is that the main cause of immoral behavior in business lies in the moral awareness and moral motivation categories. I argue that business schools, and businesses themselves actively inhibit moral awareness. By teaching rational decision-making techniques in school, and specifying the inputs to those techniques, students learn that business decisions are amoral—moral considerations just don’t enter the picture. We learn to look at business problems as exactly that—business problems. Things like profits, employee satisfaction, the time value of money, marketing techniques, and so on, are emphasized to the exclusion of moral issues. Business schools tend to stunt moral awareness by focusing almost exclusively on business issues, while conveying to students that all other issues are less important.
As for moral motivation (remember that Rest defines this as an existing ranking of “doing the right thing,” not motivating someone to act a certain way in the future), I will point at society in general, not the higher education system. We have placed such a high priority on achievement, success, material comfort and wealth that it becomes difficult to prioritize “doing the right thing.” That does not mean that we actively seek to do the wrong thing, simply that doing good gets buried by so many other priorities. Certainly, business schools don’t do much to counter this emphasis, but the problem is not one of their making.
My final thought, then, is how do those morally aware and morally motivated people who end up working in (especially large) businesses both remain morally engaged AND become effective business people? I am afraid—terrified, actually—that being good in both is getting more and more difficult. One short example will support my concern. I taught an ethics course in UNI’s Masters of Public Policy program last year. Because, in some sense, “ethics is ethics,” and because my background is in business ethics, I came into that class utilizing many of the same materials as my business ethics courses, and certainly my own mindset. Roughly half-way through the course, my students and I figured out something that was inhibiting their learning in the course. That thing was my overriding assumption that “ethics” has to really be pushed, and pushed hard, in the workplace (my frame of reference was a business workplace), while my Public Policy students were coming, predominantly, from government and non-profit entities. Apparently, in those sectors, “doing the right thing” is at least acknowledged to be important, if not placed front and center.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.