I was speaking to a project manager the other day and we were talking about the challenges of managing people. He said,
"Managing people isn’t like assembling a chair, because the chair doesn’t complain."
To which I replied,
"That people answer back isn’t the most important difference between people and chairs. It’s that it matters to people how you treat them, whereas it doesn’t matter to the chair how you treat it. Isn’t the key difference between inanimate objects and people a matter of ethics?"
The manager's response? Well, it made a lasting impression.
"You don’t stop a lion from eating you by being kind to it."
Upon closer consideration, I can say his response is illustrative of three ways he’s misunderstood why ethics matters in managing people:
People are not lions
Ethics isn’t simply a matter of being kind
Managing people isn’t normally about stopping them eating you (figuratively speaking).
Let me explain.
Management Involves Empathy, Not Taming
Lions, like people, do answer back.
It matters to lions how you treat them. Recognising this explains why lion taming isn’t the flourishing career path it once was. But assuming that the image is of a brave man with a chair and a whip fending off an angry lion, that doesn’t remotely resemble any management situation I’ve encountered in 20 years. Because the tools a good manager uses tend to involve empathy.
And once we’re using out empathy, we’re already in the ethics business.
Managing people effectively tends to involve interest in what they value and what they hope to achieve. Half the battle with good management is creating enough overlap between people’s goals that they want the project to succeed.
If you look across the public sector and the voluntary sector, there is ample evidence that people will endure all sorts of personal hardship because they think that the work that they do matters. It’s not that people aren’t motivated by self-interest, they are. But they often are motivated by the need to feel like they matter, that their work is valuable, and that there’s a point to what they are doing.
Just doing it for the money might keep them turning up, but they won’t care about the work as well, and they will take a better offer if it comes along. Money isn’t as big a motivator as people seem to think. Financial security, financial independence and feeling respected matters to people. Feeling useful matters and quite often feeling like they’re winning the competition they’re in matters to people. Managing people involves understand what matters to them, and giving them reasons to think that the success of the team matters.
Why Kindness Isn't All That Counts
If the image of lion taming is not a good one for managing people, then politely asking the lion if it could not eat you is perhaps an even worse one for ethics. Kindness is very important; usually it’s something we could do better at. It’s not obvious that cruelty to lions is effective at taming them, rather than giving them reasons to wait until your back is turned before attacking. But kindness isn’t a matter of avoiding all confrontation or inviting others to exploit you.
Ethics also involves a host of other ‘virtues’, such as bravery; standing up for what matters even when it will make people uncomfortable. It also involves justice, where you work out what you owe to people, and holding them responsible for their actions. It also involves having self-respect, and standing up for yourself. Ethics is the project of trying to balance all these demands.
So, you need to be kind to other people while still holding them responsible, standing up for what matters, and insisting on being treated with respect.
If you need to hold someone accountable for falling short, do you also need to humiliate them? Is it kind to someone to lie to them about how well they are doing in the long run? Does kindness require that you let other people make everyone’s life miserable? The answer to these questions seems to be ‘no’, which flatly contradicts the image of the ethical person as ineffectually asking if they could avoid being lunch.
Introducing Ethics to Management
In fact, ethics is particularly useful at getting us to think about how we act, not just what we do, and what the rules are. If you’re trying to work out how to manage people better, there are issues of technique (e.g. having standing meetings so they go quicker), but also issues where paying attention to what the situation requires of you is what can be better. You might ask, do I need to be braver?, or stand up for myself more?, be more pragmatic? or more principled?.
The answers might be different in different situations, and you might arrive at them by paying attention to the various things that matter, including the people in your team. These are the questions of ethics, and acknowledging that the people in your team matter in a way chairs do not is the foundation.
Ethics isn’t simply being kind, and people aren’t lions. But what has that got to do with good management?
The project manager I spoke to said that management was about controlling people. You have something that you want to do, and the aim is to make other people do it. Acting as if you care about them, it turns out, is quite effective at controlling people. But why think control is what management is about, rather than, say, leadership?
Control presupposes that the people you are managing have nothing to contribute to how the job gets done. The manager is good insofar as they manipulate people more effectively. If you think of managing as manipulating people, as if they were complicated furniture, no wonder they talk back!
If you get the individuals you manage to form a team, with shared goals and shared interests, they don’t need manipulating into doing the job, because they want to do it. And they might find ways of doing it more effectively, because they care about doing it well. They will be able to take pride in it, and although they will of course have their own goals, and their own agenda, they will want the team to succeed. So a manager can explain to them, as if they are a human who matters, why things need to be done in ways that are less convenient for them.
Management by Fear Fails
Lion taming is about controlling a lion (through fear, intimidation, subterfuge and sanctions). If that’s how you think of management, I don’t want to work for you. People working in those environments find ways of working around the controls, and just extracting as much rewards from the job as they can.
If you think management is control, you will create a team that is harder to control. If you treat money as if it’s the only reward, you will create a team that is just in it for the money. If you treat the team as if they matter, and that they matter collectively, you will get loyal, motivated people who care about getting the job done well.
That switch from a control focus to a leadership focus is exactly the change from manipulation to ethics.
Graeme A Forbes is a freelance philosophical consultant and ex-academic philosopher.
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