I recently enjoyed the privilege of hearing Nigel Barley, an anthropologist with the British Museum, give a wide-ranging talk about the importance of non-communication.
Yes, that’s right. With all the emphasis on swifter communication, better communication, error-free communication, and the rest of it, Barley spoke about how good communication can mess up a perfectly good situation.
For example, the British East India Company embodied the British Empire for centuries. According to Barley, the home office finally collected and tabulated the accounts from all of its far-flung field operations (sound familiar?) in the mid-1800s. Like Wiley Coyote running off a cliff but not falling until he looks down, the directors discovered their company had been bankrupt for more than 200 years.
My own recent communications with InfoWorld’s readers — four columns on how to motivate employees — led some correspondents to conclude that I’m morally bankrupt.
Readers expressed concern in three areas: 1) using fear, greed, and other “negative” emotions is unethical — managers should appeal to employees’ better natures; 2) when managers analytically decide how to motivate employees they’re being manipulative, which is also unethical; and 3) I’m endorsing situational ethics, and that encourages unethical behavior, too.
A profound discovery of modern management theory is that managerial ethics matter to employees, and they matter a lot. This has been a major revelation to a generation of business leaders who previously figured morality belonged in the home and that including ethics in business decisions was somehow immature and idealistic. (Yes, I know there’s a difference between ethics and morals; it’s subtle enough to ignore in this discussion.)
Ethics matter. They matter from the perspective of self-respect, they matter from the perspective of employees trusting you enough to follow your lead, and they matter from the perspective of business success, because in today’s competitive labor market success depends on the talent you can attract and retain. The best talent will abandon you without regret if you reveal yourself to be an immoral weasel.
Ethics isn’t, however, reducible to a simple formula. If it were, philosophers would have long ago tired of the subject. It is, instead, both complex and highly personal. So here’s my personal perspective on the issues you’ve raised.
Last point first: I do believe ethics are situational. So does our legal system, which, for example, accepts self-defense as justification for killing someone. Opinion: How you motivate an employee (instilling fear of unemployment) has less impact on the ethics of an action than does your intent (wanting to save his job).
Issue No. 2: Manipulation? My own opinion is that honesty and intent differentiate motivating employees from manipulating them.
Look at it this way: You’re responsible for successfully achieving the mission of your organization. You can’t succeed in this with unmotivated employees. As a manager, you have an impact on employee motivation. You have to decide whether you’re going to do it consciously, through analysis and planning, or whether you’re going to rely on your instincts being good enough to do the job.
Issue #1: Appealing to negative emotions … what’s a negative emotion? Fear? Anger? Both are important to your survival.
Instilling fear is, in my mind, completely ethical if the employee legitimately has something to be afraid of, such as becoming unemployed due to poor performance. Failing to instill fear when there’s something to be afraid of — failing to create a gut-level understanding of the consequences — is as unethical from where I sit as letting a drunk friend drive.
Bullying employees — an act of self-indulgence, not motivation — is entirely different, and always a bad idea.
Humans aren’t Vulcans. Emotions drive human behavior. That’s reality. When managers and executives make decisions based on wishful thinking instead of reality, they make the right choices by accident when they make them at all.