Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Bad Management Is Immoral

A few weeks ago, the hosts of The Partially Examined Life, my favorite new podcast, were discussing how public perceptions of what's moral change over time. The hosts asked each other what beliefs and practices that are common today future humans would find morally indefensible. For example, today we find slavery morally indefensible but 500 years ago that wasn't the case.

One answer to that question, I think, is how organizations are managed.

By that I don't mean decisions firms make about macro-level topics like sustainability, outsourcing, making their products addictive, or the impact of their operations on local populations. I'm talking about the micro-level interactions between people within an organization. When I say "how organizations are managed" I mean how managers and supervisors treat the people on their teams.

The vast majority of people I've met in my life had at least one job that leads to a dialogue that goes something like this:

Neil: "How's work going?"

Friend: "It's okay. There are a few parts that I like, but I mostly hate it."

Neil: "Why do you mostly hate it?"

Friend: "Well, I have to work a lot of hours and I haven't gotten decent raise or a promotion in forever. And the worst part is, so much of what I do is dumb administrative stuff that is a waste of time that my boss assigns me at the last minute. And now that we're talking about my boss, he's not a nice person and doesn't care about us and our team. To make matters worse, he doesn't know what he's doing and isn't very good at his job. The only reason he became my boss is because he is buddy-buddy with the higher-ups. He yells at me and my teammates and doesn't know what direction we should be going in. 

I never learn anything new and I do the same stuff every day and get yelled at if I don't do it the way my boss likes, even if I could be doing it better. In the rare instance that my boss does tell me I did a good job, he always adds a "but you could've done this better..." to the end of what he says. I feel like I'm going to be stuck here forever, and all I'm going to have for show for it is gray hair.

The higher-ups always change direction and constantly have a new corporate "transformation" or "cost cutting" initiative that some consulting firm that doesn't know anything put them up to. I'm tired of getting a "new system", which never works anyway. The higher-ups don't tell us why we're changing things. They never even come down to see what's going on at the ground level, which is why most of their bright ideas never work.

On top of all this, so many people at work are selfish and will do anything to get ahead. I have one or two friends that I think are okay at work, but everyone else is mostly a brown-noser, mean, or uninteresting.

Does that answer your question?"

I'm not suggesting every job is like this, but I think we've all felt parts of this description ourselves (I have) or have close friends who've felt this way. But it's not just anecdotal. There's starting to be actual data that point to how much people in America hate their jobs, and the impact it has.

Consider some of these threads:

Think of how far reaching the impact of having a terrible manager can have on our lives, and how many people are affected by terrible managers. It's stress you bring home making us worse partners and parents. Overwork makes us unhealthy and can literally give us heart attacks. Feeling like you aren't doing something useful makes us (and I'll own this one, personally) fall into dangerous territory for mental health.

More indirectly, but perhaps more insidiously, having a bad manager may mean you don't grow, develop, and get better at your job. That squandering of talent is something could be considered immoral (I happen to feel that way, but that's an argument for another post). More tactically, a bad manager not developing an employee takes away future economic opportunity from that employee (and his family) because it limits opportunities for advancement. More broadly, squandering employees' talent also harms the firm and its customers. After all, if employees were better managed, who knows what kind of innovations or quality improvements they might make?

Because it causes direct and indirect harm to individuals and society as a whole, I think it's reasonable to at least debate whether bad management is immoral. Right now, I don't even hear much debate about this topic. Even though macro-level ethical issues in management are important, I wish the micro-level ethical issues in management were more widely discussed.

The moral obligations managers have to their employees, or even considering the morality of hierarchical bureaucracy - the world's dominant organizational form - itself is a topic for another post which I'm still gathering my thoughts on. Moreover, I think using philosophical approaches to explore the morality of management and organizational systems would be refreshing make a big difference in the lives of real people.

I will get to it. I hope real philosophers do more of this work, too. After all, I'm the philosophy equivalent of a dude tinkering in his garage!

For now, even without a concrete exploration of moral management, I offer these thoughts up as an answer to the question asked on The Partially Examined Life podcast. I think future humans will find the way we manage organizations morally indefensible.

I'd love to hear what y'all reading this think. In particular, what you think a manager, morally speaking, owes his or her team. Those of us that are managers, if we want to do better...where do we start?