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Ethical Free Riders: An Insidious Disease Inside your Organization

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What is an ethical free rider? Working in an ethically healthy firm has enormous benefits: at the internal level of the organization one may for instance have access to more information or enjoy more freedom and larger responsibilities due to an atmosphere of trust. At the level of external relations, the good reputation may attract investors, better clients or social interest.

This ethical environment is not a matter of good intentions and bold declarations: is built on real personal virtues and commitment by the members of the organization. But some members of the organization may not contribute to that high standard, while at the same time faking a decent behavior and even an outstanding technical performance. You cannot convince them to sum to the common transcendent goals that create that sense of community: they understand the necessity of that, but not for them. They can enjoy what others strive to create while focusing on their own interest with no immediate harm to the organization.

Lack of Professionalism and Commitment Without Breaking Rules

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An Anopheles stephensi mosquito is obtaining a blood meal from a human host. Source: Jim Gathany/CDC

In economics a free rider refers to someone who benefits from resources, goods, or services without paying for the cost of the benefit (e.g. a user of public transportation services who does not pay his or her taxes). Ethical free riders are those who benefit from the general moral conditions and ethical reputation of their firm and colleagues, within a certain sector or market; but without contributing to that moral high standard. Ethical free riders are masters on simulating.

By ethical free riders I do not mean those persons that cause direct illegal harm – like stealing or cheating – who are no longer free riders, but felons. I do not mean even unethical professionals with dubious (though strictly legal) behavior. I refer to those who lack the level of professionalism and commitment that may be found around them or within their organizations without breaking any written rule or causing direct economic harm. This has individual advantages because they do not have to be as good as their partners to earn the same rewards, or because they unjustly earn competitive advantages, drawing their professional prestige from others to sign contracts, gain customers, acquire information, etc. – but involves important risks to organizations, as we discuss bellow.

The free rider disease

I find at least three problems caused specifically by ethical free riders:

  1. Ethical free riders take advantage of other’s efforts beyond what is formally required and thus do not contribute in a fair measure to the common goals of the firm.
  2. There is also a direct harm done by free riders: the bad example is contagious . Although they fly under the organizational radar ethical free riders do influence people with higher ethical standards to lower those standards and thus create a spiral of (moral) mediocrity around them.
  3. But the worst of all possible consequences of ethical free riding is the erosion of trust  within organizations and towards organizations. In this regard what some call psychopath and narcissist managers (a form of ethical free riding) are the greatest danger because they create enthusiastic followers and may deliver (or fake) results. But – as some management guru once said – “trust is built in decades but destroyed in the blink of an eye”.

Injustice, mediocrity, distrust. Ethical free riders are presumably a cancer for human cooperation and economic performance within organizations. They are the most insidious enemy of any attempt to build an ethically excellent organization. And -like the biblical tares that grow along the wheat- they are to be found everywhere, due to human nature.

The Hunt for the Ethical free riders

Ethical free riders are not easy to detect and tackle, for a number of reasons. Let’s consider four:

  1. Moral virtue is difficult to evaluate: bad consequences of personal moral underperformance are not necessarily reflected in the profit and loss account. The firm may lack the formal instruments to measure and reward (or punish) it.
  2. Other informal means of control of moral performance may be illegal or morally dubious (like direct questions on private life and beliefs, or relying on rumors), or at least may have the secondary effect of eroding a general sense of trust.
  3. The harm done to trust and reputation by free riders – even when measurable – is not always incremental.  Problems of trust typically explode in form of crisis and scandals.
  4. The common experience is that the effect of good example is weaker than bad models of conduct .

Treatment of a chronic disease

Having these difficulties in mind I suggest some ways to face the problems discussed above, knowing that we cannot eradicate them directly:

  1. Tolerance and patience. This may sound contradictory, but in front of a problem that is not going to be completely solved, it is important to avoid maximalist approaches that exasperate people and lead to imprudent decisions. This does not mean inaction, but the centrality of the following suggestions (and not try to use a sledgehammer to crack nuts).
  2. Foster commitment and benevolence. If a member of an organization works only for extrinsic and untransferable rewards, it becomes impossible to tolerate free riding behaviors. This should be tested during the hiring process for all workers, moreover for the intermediate and top leaders of the organization. Salaries should not be too low neither too high (see number 4). Leading by example is crucial.
  3. Building a strong organizational culture. The commitment with the transcendent goals of the organization (given that they exist) grows not only with formal rules and incentives, but also with a consistent and open narrative of how the organization pursues its goals.
  4. Being just and professional in leading and rewarding or punishing what is measurable. The emphasis put on the informal and cultural dimension of the firm has the risk of making us forget that basic justice and a minimum of efficiency is required for any organization. Otherwise the appeal to higher values will sound (and become) void.
  5. What seems weird is weird. You cannot wait until the problems are explicit. Moral and  mental illness may not be immediately detectable by ordinary means in terms of economic results or professional performance but there are signs that can be interpreted as an implicit problem. Keep an eye on that, to take timely, legal and discrete measures. Don’t exclude surgery.

 

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How much does it cost to be ethical? What is the cost of corruption?

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The opposite day, my 10 year-old son requested me how a lot it prices to be moral.  Not likely a shocking query for the son of an ethics professor, however one which has no straightforward reply. So, how can we measure the impression of doing the correct factor?

Contributing to the welfare of others and your individual is frankly, a priori, a broad query.  If I had been to reply my son’s query in a easy manner, I’d attempt to flip the query round and as a substitute ask, what occurs if I don’t do the correct factor? What’s the price of corruption?

Stop Corruption, by kmillard92.
Cease Corruption, by kmillard92.

On the one hand, anybody can communicate freely about variations in notion, and there are research in regards to the notion of corruption.  But once we attempt to apply statistics and actual numbers to this phenomenon, its very nature impedes us from accessing these numerical values; its obscurity and lack of transparency leaves no path to comply with, typically because of the varied and inventive means corruption has of additional selling different corrupt practices past the financial (presents, journeys, particular favors, and many others.).

So what prices does corruption incur?  The price of corruption is far more than monetary; it’s also social, political, environmental and human:

  • Monetary: Corruption has a direct impression on the wealth of countries, diverting funds to “non-public” functions, as a substitute of to the frequent good.  It additionally generates an underground economic system, dissuading overseas funding (in accordance with Transparency Worldwide, dropping one index level results in dropping the equal of 0.5% of GDP in overseas funding) and inspiring capital flight.
  • Social: It additionally corrodes belief, not solely in establishments, but additionally in individuals.  It generates frustration, apathy, discourages the entrepreneurial spirit, accentuates social inequities and promotes organized crime.
  • Political: Corruption is likely one of the biggest obstacles to democracy and the rule of legislation.
  • Environmental:  Unacceptable practices in developed international locations are additionally carried out in creating international locations, along with the overall pillaging of pure sources.
  • Human: It damages human nature and creates a rift between human beings and their final objective.

If we focus simply on the monetary value, within the Nineties Enterprise Week printed the outcomes of a College of California examine that exposed the precise value of corruption.  For instance, accepting a bribe or giving in to extortion to hurry up licensing procedures or to acquire a public contract led to a 3 to 10 % improve in charges.  In the long run, the products and companies topic to corruption had been 20 -100% dearer.

In 2003, the U.N. signed the primary worldwide anti-corruption treaty.  At the moment the Related Press gathered quotes that illustrated the extent and gravity of corruption in lots of international locations:

Corruption … has ruined our colleges and hospitals [..] It has destroyed our agriculture and industries. It has ‘eaten up’ our roads and jobs. … It has destroyed our society.”  Justice Minister, Kenya.

Anthony Value, The U.N.’s prime anti-crime official, made the next observations:

“Zaire and Nigeria, two of Africa’s hardest-hit states, have misplaced some $5 billion every in the previous couple of years to graft, most of it spirited out of these international locations.”

“In Pakistan, an estimated 30 % of the value of all public works initiatives goes to kickbacks and bribes.”

“In Bangladesh, corruption eats up a whopping 50 % of overseas funding.”

In 2004, Daniel Kaufmann, the World Financial institution Institute International Governance Director, revealed that all through the world multiple trillion U.S. {dollars} ($1,000,000,000,000) had been paid yearly in bribes, not together with misappropriation of public funds or embezzlement.  This determine estimates bribes paid each in wealthy international locations and creating international locations.

Did You Say "Bribe"?, by Chris Potter (StockMonkeys.com)
Did You Say “Bribe”?, by Chris Potter (StockMonkeys.com)

Kaufmann noticed that the whole financial sum of corrupt transactions was only one a part of the whole value of corruption, which in and of itself is a serious obstacle to the discount of poverty, inequality and toddler mortality in rising economies.  Different insights that got here out of this examine included how in the long term the nationwide incomes of nations that battle corruption and enhance the rule of legislation can improve as much as 4 occasions. On the identical time, the examine discovered that such efforts would result in a 75% lower in toddler mortality.

In 2009, Transparency Worldwide printed a report that discovered that corruption in Eire value the state three billion kilos.  In the meantime, in Italy the Court docket of Auditors confirmed that authorities corruption value 60 million euros per 12 months.  Within the U.Okay., the Nationwide Fraud Authority quantified fraud at 73 billion GBP in 2012.  On the European degree, in 2013 the E.U. estimates that corruption all through the 27 member states prices 120 billion euros per 12 months. In Spain, a current examine positioned the social value of corruption at 40 billion euros.

Whereas it’s troublesome to understand corruption’s monetary impression, these numbers do assist to make clear the gravity of the phenomenon.  Fascinated about the price of corruption in relative phrases can also be enlightening.  For instance, if we refer again to the determine cited by Kaufmann – $ 1 trillion USD – and we evaluate it with the $150 million USD in worldwide assist provided for catastrophe aid following the current storm within the Philippines, the pressing have to fight corruption is kind of evident.

Going again to my son’s query, and with out dropping sight of the bigger and better motives past the financial that justify working in direction of good, the figures cited earlier do certainly assist me to reply his query: Many good issues rely on our doing good.  By making brave and trustworthy selections, we are able to rework actuality and create not only a extra simply world, but additionally a happier one.

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General Management Standing its Ground

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IESE Business SchoolOne of the most valuable legacies that the founders of IESE created is the institution’s general management focus, both for teaching and other business activities.  Long before, Chester Barnard, a prominent pioneer in the field of management who brought together executive experience and humanistic training, alluded to a similar focus, emphasizing that in the management process “the sensing of the organization as a whole and the total situation relevant to it,” is indispensable.

The general management perspective views an organization as a whole, integrating strategy , finance, operations, and marketing in addition to all the other functions of a company.  This approach requires stepping away from narrow perspectives centered solely upon one area – whether strategy, finance or marketing – and the factors characteristic to each.  The result is running the risk of overlooking the company as a whole.

Within this perspective, business ethics, as I discussed in Business Ethics in Action, views the general manager’s role as that of someone managing a community of people who provide products, create wealth and serve society, doing so fairly and justly.  Promoting human excellence and efficiency as an approach to organize, act and interact with others, business ethics, above all, guides senior management, encouraging it to always seek the common good in business and society through all of its actions.

This general management and business ethics perspective is not unique to IESE.  However, opposing tendencies have been prevalent in the international realm for some time, especially in business schools, particularly “Strategic Management courses displacing “General Management” courses.

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General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers prior to D-Day.

Inspired by military lingo, the notion of “strategy” was introduced into business schools more than 50 years ago.  Later it gelled into courses on “Strategic Management” and in the creation of the corresponding academic departments.  The argument that justified the resulting exclusion of “General Management” courses and departments (which had formerly incorporated strategy) was that strategic management was at the core of general management, or at least it was its main function.  In some business schools the process took place merely to mirror what some prestigious U.S. institutions had done.

Although there are diverse emphases and definitions, generally, strategic management refers to all of the aspects that affect the company, taking the competitive context in which the organization exists into consideration.  The approach attempts to adapt the business organization to its surroundings, seeking opportunities and confronting competitors and possible competitive threats.  Strategic management, then, tends to be the compass for all of senior management’s and the entire organization’s activityThis tendency places businesses at risk of reducing general management to one of its components, and in this way, substituting the whole with one of its parts.

The problem is that strategy is always a means; it is a strategy “to achieve” an ends, generally financial.  What is important is to be successful in attaining the particular objective that the strategy is targeting.  Often there is a tendency to step back from other business elements.  For example, there are strategy books that examine the strategy Madonna implemented to achieve success or how companies like Wal-Mart have succeeded.  For some strategic management professors, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War makes the top of the reading list, characterizing competitors as the enemies to defeat.  Others may not go to this extreme, yet they do see strategy as the essence to achieve financial gain wherever it may be.  Fortunately, there are still plenty of reasonable people – here at IESE amongst them – who know that strategy has a place within a larger context , and in practice, they maintain their general management bearings.

Does ethics have a place within strategic management?

With some good will, indeed, but as an add-on.  It can be included, ethically evaluating the ultimate purpose of the strategy or resolving ethical dilemmas that its implementation presents.  But it can also easily be omitted, perhaps leaving ethics to the business ethics course alone, saving the discussion about strategy from scrutiny.

Ricardo Currás (Dia) at IESE
Ricardo Currás (DIA)

Fortunately, today there are plenty of leaders who understand strategy’s role within a broader contextRicardo Currás, Executive Director of DIA, a Spanish company that began as a family-run shop and today is a multinational with 44,000 employees, is one of them.  In his November 15 visit to IESE he declared that he “didn’t believe in strategy” and that, “strategy is a word that has become a bit stale because it confines you to a straitjacket. Today you can’t predict the impact you will have on your company’s future. I do, however, believe in direction, in the path that may be the best to take. In addition to sketching strategic plans, we need to continually remind ourselves where we are and where we are going.”

Another great executive, Bill George, CEO of the successful high-tech medical company Medtronic based in Minnesota, defined his company as “a mission-driven company, a values-centered organization and an adaptable business strategy.”

This, I believe, should once again become the general management perspective.  Certainly we should not forget strategy.  Instead, we should emphasize a well thought-out mission centered on enduring values that can solidify over time .  Strategy should support this endeavor, not hold general management back.

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Machiavellian Management Ethics: 500 years of “The Prince”

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What is more important for business success: behaving ethically or earning a good reputation?  What then is the role of ethics in the context of business management?

For quite some time “business is business” was en vogue.  Yet the financial crisis and other scandals led us to a situation where social responsibility, sustainability and good reputation are appealing and part of any successful business. But this new trend does not give by itself an answer to our question. The point —some will say— is what we understand by success. And the answer to that takes us back to Renaissance Italy.

Until the Italian cinquecento the common assumption in Christian Europe was that eternal salvation was way more important than earthly success (power, money, pleasure). So no one dared to give a clear answer in public to our question, although almost everybody knew the unpleasant truth.

Niccolò Machiavelli, Business Ethics IESE Blog
Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccoló Machiavelli, a Florentine diplomat, gave his own response in The Prince —a little treaty written five hundred years ago and published posthumously in 1532. Antony Jay translated it into contemporary business management language in his acclaimed book Management and Machiavelli (1967).

The Prince is popularly known as an apology of fraud and manipulation in political action. But we should read it carefully. Carl Schmitt, a well know follower of Machiavelli’s political realism, once wrote: “Machiavelli, had he been a Machiavellian, would sooner have written an edifying book rather than his ill-reputed Prince.”

For sure, Machiavelli always thought religion and morals were crucial for political life. But he broke with the moral teachings of Christian tradition, stating that leaders had to learn (unlearn) how to violate morals to obtain good political results. He thus cut the link between political prudence and ethics, considering politics the science of power. This was not a mere apology of immorality, but something needed for the greater or basic good of peaceful social life: “The ends justify the means.

Weber rationalized this moral approach as the politician’s “ethics of responsibility,” opposed to the saint’s “ethics of conviction.” This has some features in common with what English philosophy called utilitarianism (closely linked to economic logics); Americans later labeled as consequentialism (so many times invoked in security and defense issues); and Germans significantly call Erfolgsethik (ethics of success).

Leo Strauss, a remarkable and original interpreter of Machiavelli, wrote “Economism is Machiavellianism come to age.”  At the end of the day the paradigm of individuals as maximizers of utility is based on the self-interest centered man of Machiavelli .

Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiavelli's Il Principe
Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiavelli’s Il Principe

But Machiavelli was aware of the importance of moral reputation. He thought that a leader should be believed as morally trustworthy if he wanted to gain and preserve power. Moreover, he fought against corruption and in favor of civic virtue. But this ancient virtue was for him only the shell of Christian virtues: He viewed the strength of the lion and the astuteness of the fox as models to be followed.

So in fact an immoral business culture is not Machiavellian at all. The current lack of trust and widespread corruption is even less Machiavellian than we think . On the contrary, social responsibility, sustainability and reputation are a perfectly Machiavellian response to the crisis. This is actually Machiavellianism at its best: successful.

So The Prince is not to be read as a handbook for political maneuvering, or as a mere defense of arbitrariness. That approach would make us incapable of understanding the lasting and deep impact of Machiavellianism in contemporary politics, and by the way, in the practice of Business Management.

Summing up, there are three elements of Machiavellianism in our current ethical landscape:

  • The stress on reputation, with no real care for actual moral behaviour
  • The centrality of success as practical criterion, and the utility of strength and astuteness for achieving that goal.
  • The narrow materialistic approach to human action (economism).

What is more important for business success: behaving ethically or earning a good reputation? What then is the role of ethics in the context of business management?

Image courtesy of Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Machiavelli was right in many senses. The mere appearance of virtue is enough for achieving certain goals by taking advantage of necessitá (opportunities) and weathering the unforeseeable random factors of Fortuna. Aquinas himself knew that, and warned against the moral danger of corrupted forms of prudence (fraud, astuteness, deceit, etc.) precisely because they were compatible with apparent success. And classical wisdom reminds us, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion,” since good reputation is a moral good and even a right of the person.

So the answer to our original question depends on our definition of success. In the first instance, ethics is about defining success.

Make no mistake: We still live within a Machiavellian framework . For many of us business success is the material, measurable, earthly outcome that requires certain management abilities and the adequate administration of social legitimacy. For that reason Business Ethics should focus on re-defining success , placing management and business activity in the broader context of individual, corporate and social life considered as a whole.

Otherwise we will be assuming the Machiavellian definition of success. And that will limit the role of Ethics to an extrinsic moralizing code that has nothing to do with practice.

 

 

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