Feb 16, 2019

Excerpt from "Moral Mazes"

Started reading Moral Mazes this morning. It's good so far, a sociology of morality in corporate America, in the lineage of The Great Transformation.

tl;dr – corporate structure is highly tribal; panoptic effects do work.

Corporate managers responded the project in the way you'd expect:

Some managers seemed sympathetic to the study, although they encouraged me to recast it as a technical issue, such as the "problem of executive succession in multinationals." They objected in particular to those aspects of my brief written proposal that discussed the ethical dilemmas of managerial work. They urged me to avoid any mention of ethics or values altogether and concentrate instead on the "decision-making process" where I could talk about "trade-offs" and focus on the "hard decisions between competing interests" that mark managerial work.

Taking these cues, I rewrote and rewrote the proposal couching my problem in the bland, euphemistic language that I was rapidly learning is the lingua franca of the corporate world.

But such recasting eroded whatever was distinctive about the project and some managers dismissed the study as a reinvention of the wheel. Moreover, following managers' advice led me into ambiguous moral terrain with some of my academic colleagues. For instance, at one point, I approached a prominent academic ethicist, who had expressed a willingness to help me, with the sanitized proposal. He was "uncomfortable" with the revised version, arguing that I was not following the norms of "full disclosure." He preferred instead the earlier proposal with the more explicit references to managerial ethics and, with the agreement that I would use this version, put me in touch with a high-ranking executive in a major corporation.

Unfortunately, this executive felt "uncomfortable" with the idea of suggesting to his colleagues that an outsider, untested in the corporate world, examine their ethics.

In effect, I could not get access to study managers' moral rules-in-use because I seemed unable to articulate the appropriate stance that would convince key managers that I already understood those rules and was thus a person with whom they could "feel comfortable" enough to trust.

The author finally broke ground with a couple executives:

When, after several rewritings, the proposal satisfied him, he approached a well-placed executive in a large textile firm... and vouched for me. At that point, the proposal itself became meaningless since, to my knowledge, no one except the two executives who arranged access ever saw it.

The personal vouching, however, was crucial. This was based on what both men took to be a demonstrated willingness and ability to be "flexible" and especially on their perception that I already grasped the most salient aspect of managerial morality as managers themselves see it – that is, how their values and ethics appear in the public eye.

From p. 14-5 of my copy. Bridging worlds is hard.

Also this, on p. 21:

The pushing down of details creates great pressure on middle managers not only to transmit good news but, precisely because they know the details, to act to protect their corporations, their bosses, and themselves in the process. They become the "point men" of a given strategy and the potential "fall guys" when things go wrong.

From an organizational standpoint, overly conscientious managers are particularly useful at the middle levels of the structure. Upwardly mobile men and women, especially those from working-class origins who find themselves in a higher status milieux, seem to have the requisite level of anxiety, and perhaps tightly controlled anger and hostility, that fuels an obsession with detail.

Of course, such conscientiousness is not necessarily, and is certainly not systematically, rewarded; the real organizational premiums are placed on other, more flexible, behavior.