Book Notes: Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers

Moral Mazes

This book analyzes occupation ethics of corporate managers, meaning the moral rules-in-use that managers construct to guide their behavior at work, through authority relationships or experiences within the organization. This includes organizational upheavals that jumble career plans, intense rivalries between managers for prestige and say-so, or making hard choices with ambiguous outcomes.

While court cases or journalistic accounts or corporate scandals shed some light and open a window into the way corporations work, they are but a small sliver of the environment from which the actions under observations occur, and remove all the necessary history and context. It is like reading about a battle without knowing the armies at play, the field upon which it happened, the war at large, and the causes of the belligerents.

Bureaucratic contexts typically being men and women together who initially have little in common other than the impersonal frameworks of their organizations. It allows individuals to maintain bewilderingly diverse private motivates and meanings for action as long as they adhere publicly to agreed-upon rules. Bureaucratic work causes people to withhold the moralities they might hold outside the workplace or adhere to privately and instead follow the morality of their particular organizational situation.

However, since public legitimacy and respectability spend on perceptions of ones moral “rightness”, the dodging of conventional moralities cannot be admitted to, even though they can often be impractical. Actual organizational moralities are contextual, situation, highly specific, and often unarticulated.

Moral Probations, Old and New

Protestant ethic refers to the set of beliefs and binding social rules that counseled secular asceticism - the methodical, rational subjection of human impulse and desire to God’s will through restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling.

In the mid-1800s, mass wholesalers and retailers had opportunity to expand markets due to railroad and improved waterways, Telegraph, and other technological breakthroughs. This introduced the need for managers.

Humans and their relationships are irrational. Corporate bureaucracy, the hierarchy of power, is a rational structured forced to deal with an irrational organism. Corporations are in constant turmoil and changes due to managers ambitions, panic about their mobility, intense rivalries, and personnel changes.

The Social Structure of Managerial Work

The “management-by-object” system is a pyramid built of successively wider and wider guarantees, starting at the subordinate leaf level of what they can commit to, rolling up all the way to the CEO, with each level of management committing to their bosses the result of a formulation based on all of their report’s commitments.

The implied relationship between bosses and subordinates is this: subordinates must keep their bosses from making mistakes (particularly public ones), keep the boss informed / not blindsided, and even if the boss is a fool, not exploit that because he himself may get done in by that error while also being viewed by other managers with suspicion. He can’t contradict his bosses judgement, speak out of turn, or upstage his own boss. By doing so, the subordinate can hope to be given preference by his boss, to be elevated when his boss is elevated, and protected by his boss when he makes mistakes (lest they be too big or stupid).

In this authority system, details are pushed down and credit is pulled up. Superiors do not like to give too much detail to their subordinates for many reasons: maximize subordinates autonomy, get rid of tedious details, reducing the lack of economy over one’s time (due to continual interruption from subordinates, continuous calls and meetings, fragmentation of issues due to the discontinuity of events and the way subordinates filter news). It also relieves superiors of the burden of too much knowledge, particularly guilty knowledge.

A quote that also illustrates part of this: “if I tell someone what to do the inference and implication is that he will succeed in accomplishing the objective. Now, if he doesn’t succeed, that means that I have invested part of myself in his work and I lose any right I have to chew his ass out if he doesn’t succeed. If I tell you what to do, I can’t bawl you out if things don’t work.”

In this way, bearers of bad news are seen as having failed, as those far away from the details expect successful results without messy complications.

Credit cannot be earned, but it is rather given. Customarily, people that had nothing to do with the project can be allocated credit for their efforts. At middle levels, credit for a particular idea or success is a type of refracted social honor.

While there are official professional reviews, what really matters is the intricate biographical and career details that managers know about each other and their subordinate. When it comes to actually making change or enlisting help, the secret ranking that each person has of their peers and subordinates are the real things that matter. Upheavals in social order, all too common in ever-larger corporations (CEO changes, intentional organizational shakeups, departures/firings), reveal true feelings; only when social order falls apart are the bonds that held it together revealed.

The Main Chance

At a certain level, competence is assumed, to be be set apart from your peers takes managing the perception others have of you, which is mainly drawn at a certain level from your personality, passions, and interests. People representing the company to outsiders, whether in social situations or events that mingle corporations with politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and the like, must be able to have interesting conversations, an understanding of the world at large, a broad knowledge of many things, and the ability to steer conversations down the well-worn grooves that are socially acceptable.

Hitting ones numbers is not the way to get ahead: one must also be able to construct a narrative, to have a social perception of success, to move ahead.

Once must always be moving upward - once it is sensed that one is blocked or stuck at a certain level, the whole story changes. The limits of ability have been figured out; the narrative is somewhat self-defining.

Finding a patron is important to move upward. A patron relies on clients for youthful exuberance, loyalty, to have eyes and ears in other parts of the organization, to be a confidant, and to extend their own influence. A patron may pick a client and use their influence to protect mistakes they made, put them in high-leverage opportunities not available to others, gets visibility, supports his work, applauds at meetings. And introduces the client to the right people. The client and patron’s relationship is mutually beneficial, and a misstep by one will negatively impact the other.

Failure is an interesting thing to study. Accepting it, such as taking a demotion during a company re-org, is akin to rolling over, regardless of personal circumstance or motive. To be weak in a world that extols strength and power is to incite abuse. Other managers may stay away from managers deemed “weak” as to not be guilty by association.

Drawing Lines

Objective morality does not fit squarely with the corporate bureaucracy. As managers are paid (handsomely) to impress rationality onto an innately irrationally system, they must deal with moral ambiguities and relativity. Those best equipped understand the experience and are not tied to unmoving moral parameters, at least within the office. Often it is the case that certain expedient decisions need to be made, and that part of the role is to not involve others (as to make them capable) or raise the alarm (as doing so will often lead to ones own demise, even without the problem being fixed, if other manager’s well-being depends on it not being fixed). Impressing outside moral beliefs into actions taken by the corporation or other managers also invites outside negative public perception, betrays the trust of other managers (however objectively immoral the decision is), and implies that other managers do not adhere to a high enough standard.

There are many mechanisms in the corporation that enables one to avoid the consequences of one’s actions. For managers in the know, moving swiftly from job to job allows them to make decisions that won’t directly impact them in the future. For example, a manager can “milk” a plant by not replacing equipment, ignoring safety or regulatory upgrades, running workers for longer shifts, etc. This will lower expenses while maintaining or improving output, boosting numbers. If a manager leaves within a year or two, due to a promotion based on the inflated numbers or to a different corporation, they will not have to handle the consequences of worker action, broken machines, fines, or stopped production due to old equipment. Someone else will have to pay the piper.

Managers who work directly with workers know the fabric of their lives, the good and the bad, the individual personalities. It makes it that much tougher to deliver the bad news of resource allocation. It then allows the reader to understand why certain managers may like to maintain personal distance from their reports, knowing that most likely the work relationship will need to come to an end. As one rises up in the hierarchy, the more abstract individual works get. Reallocations, reductions of jobs, and safety concerns that might greatly impact workers lives or even cause death are swiftly transformed to just being numbers on a page and not individual humans. Organizational distance allows secular, pragmatic, utilitarian calculus without feeling any of the emotions attached had one know the individuals personally.