Most business managers are Marxists. Not Karl Marx, but Harpo. In 1912, Harpo Marx was told his career was in jeopardy when he opened his mouth. So he performed as a mute for virtually the remainder of his professional life. This is often what managers do when they imagine using moral language at work. They fear it’ll jeopardize their career, so they perform as moral mutes instead.
Harpo’s band of brothers began as a musical group. Early on they also tried their hand at comedy and were a hit. Harpo, however, couldn’t compete with Chico and Groucho’s verbal sparring. In subsequent skits, Harpo had no lines – something he resented. So Harpo ad-libbed his own material. A reviewer mentioned that Harpo was talented at pantomimes but he ruined his performance when he opened his mouth. Harpo took the hint and went mute.
Frederick Bird and James Waters have observed the same phenomenon in business. They’ve coined the phrase “moral muteness.”1 Even when business managers are acting for moral reasons, they fear jeopardizing their career and instead talk about what’s “practical,” “good for the organization,” and making “economic good sense.” Moral terms like “we ought to do this” are viewed as illegitimate or awkward or backward.
Researchers Joseph Badaracco and Allen Webb argue that moral muteness has long been melded into college curriculums. A decade ago, they interviewed Harvard MBA graduates about what they see in modern corporate culture. One student, representative of the majority of graduates, commented, “First, performance is what really counts, so make your numbers. Second, be loyal and show that you’re a team player. Third, don’t break the law. Fourth, don’t overinvest in ethical behavior.”2 Result? Marxist managers.
An Aspen Institute study yielded similar results. A survey of about 2,000 graduates of the top 13 business schools found that B-school education not only fails to improve the moral character of the students, it actually weakens it. The study examined student attitudes three times while they were working toward their MBAs: upon entering, at the end of the first year, and upon graduating. Those who believed that maximizing shareholder values was the prime responsibility of a corporation increased from 68 percent upon entrance to 82 percent by the end of the first year. The survey indicated that students gained confidence in things like controlling costs but lost confidence in a moral code.
This is exactly what we should expect. Philip Rieff said we live in an unprecedented age, a “self-dismantling” of our historic culture rooted in a moral order. College students are exposed to a “radically skeptical knowledge industry” that “has been built upon the ruins of sacred truth.”3 We’re being educated into imbecility, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it. A university education has long been part of “a vast self-knowledge industry that is the exact equivalent of invincible ignorance,” Rieff said. Students are taught a definition of reality that makes an absolute distinction between facts and values.4 Facts are the province of science and business while values are the province of religion. Facts are propositions; values are preferences. Fact language includes economics. Values language includes ethics. Students graduate with an unshakable faith that using moral language even remotely hinting at faith has no place in the workplace.
This is why most managers only imagine negative consequences if they use moral language. They see moral talk as a threat to harmony – it feels intrusive and can invite cycles of mutual recrimination. “Who made you God?” Or it’s viewed as a threat to efficiency – it seems squishy, soft, and inexact. “How does this stuff make a difference? Let’s get practical!” Moral talk is also viewed as a threat to effectiveness and profitability – it sounds esoteric, idealistic, and moralistic. “Give me a break!”
If, however, managers thought more broadly than their own narrow ambitions, they’d see that moral muteness has contributed to our current economic crisis. When Enron was collapsing, the company designed and maintained a phony trading room on the sixth floor of their downtown headquarters. It was designed to trick analysts into believing business was booming. “It was an elaborate Hollywood production that we went through every year,” said one former Enron executive. Yet there is no record of any manager saying “We should not be doing this!” They instead feared that speaking up would jeopardize their careers. The phony room was practical and made economic good sense. It turns out Enron’s moral muteness was merely a precursor to Worldcom, Bear Stearns, Countrywide Financial, Broadcom, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and so on.
Later in his life, Harpo did say five or six words in a film. Everyone knew Harpo could speak, so this wasn’t news. The real news is, given the events of the last decade, nearly 20 percent of the Harvard Business School graduating class of 2009 have signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.5 If they stitch moral language like “we ought to do this” into the everyday warp and woof of work, they’ll likely discover ought is the beginning of a sequence heard in the everyday warp and woof of life: ought-is-can-will. It’s a definition of reality anchored in creation-fall-redemption-restoration, the gospel. The M.B.A. Oath is a step in the right direction. Faith communities ought to pray that Harvard graduates do good and do well.
1 Frederick B. Bird and James A. Waters, “The Moral Muteness of Managers,” California Management Review, no. 1 (Fall 1989): 73-88.
2 Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. and Allen P. Webb, “Business Ethics: A View From the Trenches,” California Management Review, Winter, 1995, p. 11.
3 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006).
4 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York, NY: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 207.
5 Leslie Wayne, “A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality,” The New York Times, May 30, 2009.