Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Defining moments : when managers must choose between right and right

Defining moments : When managers must choose between right and right
By Joseph Badaracco

This author who is a Harvard Professor has done a remarkable job discussing ethics in business world. I have been reading some his latest works and eventually ended up with this book (reverse chronology). To me, this is one of his best books. Pathos is that, he cites quite a number of stories from western mythology but did not present any examples from east missing out on equally evocative and elaborate choices.

When there are two choices which are equally “right” but points in opposite direction, taking a decision is discouragingly tricky and perhaps morally hazardous in certain cases. What I liked about his basic theme is that, ethics when it manifests as action, is anything but straight forward. I concur with him that real world problems seldom lend themselves for such direct shooting. The path is nebulous, methods may be at times questionable and yet we have to soldier on. This ethical dilemma has been debated for countless centuries and the answers don’t seem to converge at all as author quips “what cannot be resolved in theory has to be resolved in practice”.

Prof Badarcco has quoted Machiavelli, Aristotle, Nietzsche and host of other philosophers aptly to get his message across. He takes up 3 cases in the increasing order of complexity - how can a Harvard Prof do something without a case study?. He does not tell the entire story in one go, but pauses, explains a bit more on the nuances and later towards the end of the book, he really tells the final outcome of all the three cases. They are all well thought out.

Defining moments are the ones when you choose between one “right” over “other right paths”. But, he adds ruefully, they are the final and visible part of the complex political, psychological and administrative process. To think otherwise is to mistake an exclamation point for a sentence that precedes it. They are the crucibles of character.

He introduces the concept of “dirty hands” right at the beginning from the French Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s work. ( Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_Hands )
In that play Les Mains sales by Jean-Paul Sartre, the veteran communist party leader is harshly accused by a green horn youth that he has compromised on party ideals, values and so on. The leader responds thus:
“How do you cling to purity young man? How afraid are you to soil your hands? All right, stay pure. What good it will do? Purity is an idea for monk or yogi. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your side, wearing kid gloves. Well I have dirty hands. I have plunged them in to filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently?”
- That question alone would suffice to think deeply.

Also, he talks about a portion of brain that handles moral issues. He refers to an accident of a railroad worker (Circa: 1848), Phineas Gage. An explosion drove an iron rod in to his left cheek through the base of skull and out on the top of the head. Miraculously, he survived. His mental abilities were intact, but his character did not remain the same. Before accident he was a reputable, hard working family person, but after accident, he became undisciplined and foul mouthed. Apparently, the accident has destroyed the parts of brain that govern morality. For more details, please refer : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage

In Ethics courses in the business schools, it is difficult to find a course without J&J Tylenol case study.Now, the twitter version of the story (Poor packaging of Tyenol proved fatal and as result J&J withdrew it nationwide) For more details: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Tylenol_murders.

The way he looks at the entire episode is quite different and comments that to withdraw it from the market was a “no-brainier” - after all, customer didn’t want to play roulette just to cure a headache. Author cities other episodes in the same company (like Zomax) and concludes it is more an exception.

His analysis of “sleep test” is very incisive. Lady Macbeth could not sleep at night since she conspired with her husband to kill many political rivals and in that process murdered her own sleep. But then, responsible people lie awake precisely because they have done the right thing. He dramatically concludes if people like Mother Teresa sleep badly and people like Hitler sleep well, then we can place no faith on “sleep test”. He brings in the conditions where “sleep tests” can be counted on. I enjoyed both the views.

Author also cities Ernest Hemingway’s view, “I only know that moral is what you feel good after and immoral is what you feel bad after”. Trouble is that, it is essentially post event. Secondly, I think, if one is adept in self reconciliation, some kind of rationalization can be made almost for any action. The examples that come to my mind are: “this is what I get as a punishment when I try to defend myself” – One of the convict’s last statement before he was executed. He killed two police officers. Another Case: A boy murders his parents and pleads the court to be lenient because he is an orphan now! Very rarely, people are at fault in their own eyes.

In terms of number pages, it is a puny one (126pages), but it is a heavy duty book in the sense, it would force you to examine some of your past decisions, path taken so far, and also what path would you want to take?. In any case, as I reflected I concluded that it is simply NOT possible to govern or manage innocently – unless one gets extraordinarily lucky all through his/her life or be in that position for too small a period.

Oh God, then the loss of innocence is real if the job is well done .

Thanks for reading thus far.


prataprc said...

After several thousand years of "straight forward good" and "straight forward evil" preached and performed by religious (and logic obsessed) civilization, finally God gets a chance through these words,

"anything but straight forward"

But some things had to be straight forward, otherwise how can a system be forged out of chaos ? And those who do it, I guess, must be beyond good, evil, self-pity, "sleep test" and "the portion of brain that handles moral issues" ...

Surely, I suspect Nietzsche, for teaching the Harvard prof. to philosophize his ideas with a hammer and within 126 pages.

The finishing lines of this post kind of put things in perspective, especially for those innocent will that wants to govern.

Thanks Madhu-san. Enjoyed it.

Mohanakrishnan said...

Interesting topic. I wish you had written a little more about the book. Now I will HAVE to read the book :-)


Mukund Srinivasan said...

Excellent summary, Madhu-san. Reading up on the ongoing online debate between Nick Carr and Clay Sharky on the influence of the Web, I was surprised to see the "morals" debate being discussed there as well -
"New forms of media, Pinker says, “have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.” "
I wonder what the influence is, if any, on the evolution of how humans perceive and react to ethics debates, in today's world, compared to say 20 years ago.

Ramesh N Raghavan said...

Good post and a good summary. I have not read this book, but I read two of his articles in one HBR issue on Corporate Ethics. What had me worried is that he seems to focus more on the individual taking the decision and the impact of the decision on him, rather than what is probably the right thing from a systemic point of view. In one of the articles, he talks about why one should not become a knight in a shining armor and white horse, and flame out in one instance of defending some moral or ethical stand, but rather figure out a way to balance the approach so that the person survives, possibly for future battles. I was personally not very convinced about that approach, as I thought the persons who are possibly doing something wrong may not get the message, and someone else in the system could be at the receiving end of such behavior later.. Somehow I thought that the central message in the articles I read was more about being pragmatic rather than trying to do the right thing and confront, which left me a little disappointed.. I have not read this book and will borrow it from you soon.
Thanks and Bye.
Best Regards,
N.R. Ramesh.

prataprc said...

Being clever begets chaos.
But, when we try to do the "right thing" and keep confronting the odds for it, the "right thing" keeps changing its nature. One should be clever enough to change with it ?

Nimmy said...


Intriguing. At this rate, I will soon have two libraries. One that follows my impulse and another that follows this blog! :-) Your post piques my interest and leaves me with no choice but to look for the book! :-) I've always been a huge fan of HBR, its articles, its authors and its focus areas. Does this author have a blog as well - on the HBR website - that we could look up?

srivatta said...

excellent article although I have zero knowledge and interest in management (sciences). But a recent debate interested me and some of this may be applicable there too. Would Warren Anderson (of Union Carbide fame) have slept properly? In any case, was he liable for a design failure in India unless he willfully sold his "failed-design"? Should the Indian design engineers and managers have "seen through" the design flaw?

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hello Srivatz:
Thanks for your feedback.
I don't know any more about the Bhopal gas tragedy than a common man here at India. All I know is that, it is one of the worst man-made disasters in the world.
True cost of it stands socialized –that is, instead of the producer, the lion’s share of it is passed to the society.

In his landmark book of “The Ecology of Commerce” Paul Hawken writes……
“When union carbide Chairman first heard about the Bhopal, he stated that he would devote his life making right what had gone wrong with so many victims. Within weeks he was on record with a correction saying that, he “over-reacted” and sought to limit the compensation to the killed and injured. His first reaction was human and second one was crucial and corporate".
He went on to say, Union Carbide liquidated substantial portion of assets and paid share holders lots of money thereby reducing the potential payout to the victims.
Then he Paul makes his telling remark….”Union Carbide response was unethical and inhumane. But it is NOT illegal”.

As far as myself, I think, silapathikaaram 's immortal line “Ulvinai uruthu vanthu ootum” providence would take care of his Karmic score.

Answering your pointed query,It is impossible to "see thru" all these.There seems to be indifference when warning signs came in. What would have mattered is how they "responded" or "reacted" post event. Also, "sleep test" might have failed here.