Arlington, VA October 31, 2015
Is there a differentiator here?
We have already seen that people usually makes decisions based on two things—free will, and experience. People usually react the way they have in the past, and according to how they have been taught over time. There are no secrets there. Assuming that people have been exposed to some level of rational and ethical thought, and decided that these precepts are ‘right’ for them, they will make decisions consistent with those precepts.
Individual decisions are generally less of a problem than group decisions. An individual who needs to decide something or take some action, will make that decision and move with it, whether it results in something positive or something negative—all involving their experience and their ethical upbringing.
Generally, people who lie and cheat see others in society do the same thing as others have done, but for whom those actions appear to bear no significant negative repercussions. This kind of view is sometimes called the ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ perspective, since people look to the antics of the two hoodlums and robbers as some kind of role model for doing adventurous, but dangerous things. They are willing to take their chances that either they will not be caught, or that the punishment will be lenient enough that their acts were worth their effort.
Each time this kind of activity occurs, others who observe the behavior feel that they can do similar things. It is appropriate for them, so they try to emulate their role models. If they also are not ‘caught’, it reinforces their feeling that that what they are doing is acceptable. Repetition without consequences can easily result in reinforcement of the view that what they are doing is really ‘acceptable’ instead of illegal or unethical, thus the Bonnie & Clyde Effect. Most of these kind of activities are individual in nature.
Now, we need to move to community or collective decision-making, and see how that set of processes relates to the same free will and experience perspectives. At first glance, one might think that the same rules apply, the same potential misapplication of ethics and morality is in place, and many of the similar effects should occur. In fact, nothing could be more from the truth.
People working in groups think differently from those who can rely on independent thought. Individuals making independent decisions are responsible only for their own decisions. They can be held accountable for what they do as individuals.
In a sense, individual decisions are solely the result of ethical understanding and experience. People faced with decisions think about how they acted in the past, and whether or not those past decisions met the test of ethical acceptance. If the decision does meet that test then it can be executed without fear of possible reprisal. If it does not, the individual must decide how to either change the decision, or accept the potential consequences. Either way, these are personal decisions, impacted by their personal perspective, their personal ethical barometer, and their experience.
In a professional situation, the dilemma of how to act usually has a clear third dimension—the peer relationship. People tend to congregate with each other, learn from each other, and many adopt certain people within the firm as their role models—just as an individual might emulate some role model. However, the individual does not normally have that role model with them in person, contributing to their decision-making process. The corporate individual is part of a larger ‘community’ of some type, and needs to consider the views of others who may be contributing to a decision.
Within a corporate community, there are several influences which impact decision-making. Among them, we will discuss three which have, in my view, the most impact. First is the corporate authority figure; second, corporate culture; and third the corporate ‘ethos’. There is a considerable overlap among these three influences, and as shall see, their congruence is what really impacts decision-making.
Corporate authority is the ability within an organization to direct and/or influence actions in some specific way. It can be as simple as a supervisor directing a subordinate to perform work, and expect a specific result. It can also represent the pressure placed on an employee, a manager, or virtually anyone else in an organization by the rules enacted by the governing body, be it directors or senior executives. Corporate authority provides the formal direction expected, and provides a means for holding people accountable for their actions on behalf of the organization.
Corporate culture is the environment within which people work. More esoteric than formal authority, it consists of the expectations, the ‘unwritten rules’ by which people are expected to adhere to in working with their fellow employees, and the understanding of the boundaries within which each employee can perform their work. Culture ranges from the social expectations to the organization of the physical environment.
I once worked in a place where employees could have no family pictures on their desk—but a plant or two was perfectly OK. Management was subliminally trying to make the workplace pleasant, but at the same time separate from family life. They wanted employees to consider their fellow employees their ‘family at work’. Lots of group pictures of various employee section covered the walls, along with photos of award session and other company-related activities.
Decisions in a corporate culture are often made by teams or groups—where everyone has a voice, but some voices might be listened to with more diligence.
The ethos of the organization is its corporate soul. Ethos is defined (Oxford, WEB) as “The characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.” As should be obvious here, there is an overlap between ethos and culture, but that overlap is not always easy to discern or understand. From the example above, both the ethos and culture of the company skew toward community ‘families’, and lessen the association with personal families. Ethos also tells the employee what is acceptable behavior in dealing with customers or clients and what is not. It can distinct in that respect from culture, in that the behavior with customers or clients—things external to the organization—may be quite different than relationships within the company.
Think about the Movie Wall Street , in which Gordon Gechko drives his employees to seek more and more business and wealth. He has a quite different approach with his employees professionally and socially, and an almost completely different sense of ethos when it comes to dealing with customers. In some ways, while ruthless throughout, he has a more paternalistic approach with the employees, while his ethical level in dealing with customers says in essence to ‘go get their money at all costs.’
The environment in the movie exhibits a distinct culture—a ruthless corporate culture, which says that people are there to make money—for themselves and for the firm—and that the firm takes care of those who produce and discards those who do not. The ethical standards, the beliefs, the ethos of the organization supports the culture, but goes much further in terms of lowering ethical standards when dealing with customers. Gechko’s bottom line, “Greed is Good”, describes well the interlacing of these two influencers.
In the next part, we talk about interactions, and the common space which organizes and rules the corporate environment from an ethical perspective.
Comments invited as usual.