MBA Programs Are Failing in Ethics
Business schools do a poor job of teaching students business ethics. Pro or con?
Read the debate by guest columnists Michael Beer and Mary Gentile and watch the video with Bloomberg Businessweek.com reporter Joel Stonington
Pro: Business Schools Need a Higher Ambition
When Edwin Gay became the founding dean of the Harvard Business School in 1908, he proclaimed an ambitious vision for HBS and the business leaders it sought to educate. According to Gay, the purpose of business was to do both “well and good.”
A century later, Gay’s vision still hasn’t been realized. For the most part, business management has yet to become a profession driven by more than the pursuit of quarterly earnings gains for investors. It takes only a quick scan of the business headlines to see rich fodder for ethical debates: Do CEOs who fail to turn around failing companies really deserve to walk away with golden parachutes? Shouldn’t CEOs cut their own pay and benefits before laying off employees? It’s no wonder people are quick to question whether business schools are to blame.
For starters, B-schools must do a much better job of integrating the multiple disciplines of management into a coherent approach to developing future leaders. While some schools are requiring more courses in ethics, teamwork, and leadership values, that’s not enough. As long as we offer courses strictly as stand-alone affairs, with ethics over here and finance over there, we will continue to groom leaders inclined to perpetuate a siloed view of the world. We need to connect the dots between leadership and personal integrity and everything else we teach, with an eye toward building organizations that have a “higher ambition”—pursuing economic as well as social value in ways that benefit not only investors but employees, customers, suppliers, and society at large.
My colleagues and I are encouraged that some B-schools have sought help from higher-ambition leaders themselves — people like Ken Freeman, former CEO of Quest Diagnostics, now dean of Boston University’s School of Management, and Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, now teaching leadership development at HBS.
Now, 100 years after Edwin Gay declared that business must do both “well and good,” it is time to incorporate higher-ambition principles into the B-school curriculum.
Con: Teach the Practice, Not the Concept
Too often we try to teach business ethics through intellectual analysis, as if it’s only an academic subject. Or we teach ethics as if it’s a wake-up call to an assumed audience of blissfully self-centered future managers.
Although there can be truth and undoubted value in both of these approaches, perhaps our focus should go beyond trying to “teach ethics”-to teaching how to practice ethical behavior. Based on this simple observation, it would be fruitful to shift the debate from “What is the right thing to do?” to “How can I make the right thing happen?”
Business faculty all over the world are addressing the questions of values-driven leadership. They are inviting students (the future leaders and executives of global business) to engage in an explicitly acknowledged “thought experiment.” Rather than limiting the discussion of ethics to thorny dilemmas where intelligent people can reasonably disagree, triggering what one professor called “ethics fatigue,” these educators invite their students to approach ethics from a new direction: “What if you thought you knew what was right in a particular situation? How would you get it done? What would you say, to whom, in what sequence, with what evidence, and how would you counter their resistance or fears?”
This approach, called “Giving Voice to Values,” begins from the assumption that there will always be those who push and even break society’s laws and ethical norms. But there will also be those who would rather observe them, if they believed they had the skills, the competency, and the literal practice in how to do so. Rather than “teaching ethics,” this approach teaches managers how to be ethical, enabling them to believe they have a choice.
The rapid adoption of this new approach is a promising sign that business schools have finally found a way to reconcile their core strength of preparing future leaders for action, with their new mission to instruct those same leaders how to be responsible, and, yes, ethical.