Have we lost the human touch?

“Last year I ran a case study on a company that sells bottled water. One of my students commented that he had ethical objections to making money from a common good. But most of his classmates felt his comment was out of place as the case study was about strategy.” Yuliya Shymko, Assistant Professor of Strategy, believes this is a sign of the times. “It’s a telling example of how we have become conformists.”

Before entering academia Yuliya was a manager at a multinational company where she encountered several issues she felt uncomfortable with – how people were treated and the language used to justify certain practices and situations. During her PhD she became inspired by critical management studies. Ever since she’s been asking questions, passionately exploring and encouraging different ways of looking at things, seeking to provide ideas open to debate.

Utilitarianism and business ethics

A particular concern of hers is what she calls the dehumanising influence of science and how it affects the way we talk about human experiences and organisations. “For the American management theorist Peter Drucker (1909-2005) organisation management dealt with people, their values, their growth and development, social structure, the community and even with spiritual concerns. This holistic, humanistic approach has been overtaken by a rational, utilitarian one that ignores the emotional and psychological side of things.”

This has consequences for business ethics, another issue close to her heart. “If you take a utilitarian approach you argue that a set of beliefs is ethical if they create benefits for the greatest number of stakeholders. But can the suffering of one individual be offset by the happiness of thousands? Alternatively, a deontological approach doesn’t treat people as a means to an end but as an end in themselves. And rather than using some aggregated measure of success, you look at how a certain decision affects the single individuals in an organisation. So, the question is do we create organisations to use people as instruments to achieve goals for the benefit of a specific group of people with power – lulling the others into believing they also benefit, or do we create organisations where everyone can flourish? I’d like to see more debate on this.”

Why power should make you feel uncomfortable

Also, what Yuliya finds missing from the discourse on business ethics and ethical leadership is the notion of power. “When I was put in charge of a team, my first feeling was one of discomfort,” she recalls. “People who are assigned a leadership role are usually given a sense of entitlement. But I believe we should focus more on understanding the responsibility that comes with power. Maybe it’s healthy to feel this discomfort because it means you understand that you’re not necessarily entitled. If you internalise a false sense of entitlement you risk overlooking the consequences of decisions that affect human lives. I’m not sure these issues are sufficiently covered when discussing ethical leadership.”

Business schools and universities have become too univocal

Surely business schools and universities encourage the open discussion and debate Yuliya craves? “I’m afraid they’ve changed,” she says. “They used to be havens of intellectual resistance. In the 1950’s it was common at Harvard to invite representatives of the labour unions to take part in discussions to ensure different views, which is virtually unthinkable nowadays. There seems to be a consensus as to how organisations are to be run and based on what values.”

She pauses, then adds: “This one-sidedness, this wilful simplification, jeopardises our academic integrity. We’ve become conformists, using generic language, which makes us oblivious to a number of things that should be spoken about. Instead of normalising certain practices and, through our research, giving them a seal of approval, why don’t we look at them in a more critical, open-minded way as social scientists, as people who understand that certain decisions do have consequences that are not necessarily easily measurable and that do not always fit a certain narrative?”

Caught in a vicious cycle

“Our learning institutions have been co-opted by the system – a system that is increasingly about proving your relevance to the private sector,” Yuliya says. “Mind you,” she adds thoughtfully, “it’s absolutely fine to create knowledge that is relevant to businesses, but the ways in which we try to prove our relevance are pretty conformist, if you ask me.”

Actually, the problem is more complicated than that, as Yuliya explains: “Business schools, universities and their academics are caught in a vicious cycle. Their livelihood depends on rankings and evaluations. Students expect the things they learn to help them get a job. So they don’t expect you to teach them to not only look at the numbers, to reflect critically on things and have a more open and philosophical debate, unless companies want you to.”

It all points to a broader issue: “Our society creates and nurtures this desire for success – success as a businessman or women. We no longer have political role models, we have business role models, and despite all the rhetoric about CSR, they’re mostly associated with materialistic achievements.”

“I’m not saying everything is bad,” she smiles apologetically. ”But we made ourselves dependent. Let’s be honest: the interests of businesses and society do not always coincide.”

How can we turn the tide?

Yuliya believes it should not be down to individual academics putting their heads above the parapet. Rather, business schools and universities should create an environment conducive to more open intellectual debate that leaves room for different views, even controversial ones: “We’re intellectually and pedagogically responsible for opening up  spaces for critical reflection and for developing the moral imagination* of our students in order for them to become sensitive to ethical issues in business decision making. And no, it’s not about creating a course on business ethics. This critical thinking should be incorporated in all core courses.”

But turning the tide requires even more: “We need a different institutional culture. It’s about feeling a citizen in your organisation, participating and debating without being afraid to speak up. It’s about taking psychological ownership, not just being a perfect soldier or follower. We need to raise societal awareness.”

*: moral imagination is a term popularised by Russell Kirk. It refers to the uniquely human ability to conceive of fellow human beings as moral beings and persons and not just as objects whose value depends on their utility or usefulness.

Want to know more?

Yuliya has contributed to the book “Developing Leadership: Questions Business Schools Don’t Ask”. In the chapter “The forgotten humanness of organisations”, she provides some critical reflections on and alternatives to the approaches to knowledge creation and exchange that dominate the institutional culture of many business schools by taking a closer look at how the issue of organisational change is being dealt with in management courses.

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