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Friday, February 3, 2023
HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager’s Journal: Managing and Values -- Recent Developments

Source Manager’s Journal: Managing and Values — Recent Developments

A number of years ago, I made a presentation to the board of a women’s organization. I described a set of management improvements that we had worked through and were implementing. The list included clarifying roles and enhancing decision-making and work processes. Pretty basic and non-controversial stuff. When I finished, one of the board members said, in effect, this all sounds fine, but why can’t we have feminist management practices? The CEO gave me a quick glance, which said, “Don’t say what you think or you will be permanently leaving us in the very near future.”
The CEO’s look was a needed tonic. My immediate reactions were, “Are you crazy?” and “There is no such thing.” I gave some half-baked answer that kept me from being led to slaughter, but later, upon reflection, I thought a lot more about the issue of values or identity management. I had always thought of management as a discipline, a set of approaches, processes, systems and skills that made organizations function well. It didn’t matter what kind of organization it was or who the people doing the management were. I still believe that if you apply management principles well and use best practices, the organization will succeed, but I also realize that it’s not that simple.
People, groups and cultures are different. They have different experiences and histories and these differences have big effects on organizations. For example, I once led a group of Ukrainian educators in planning their system’s future. This, after 70 years of catastrophic “planning.” Planning had a very different — and mostly negative — meaning for most of them.
Group values on the one hand and effective management practices on the other are somewhat like religion and science. They operate on parallel tracks but also cross over and interact. They sometimes seem to be — or are — in conflict. Identity or values-management approaches often heighten both the appearance and reality of conflict between “management” and the culture. In the past, in many human services organizations, management — and managers — were seen as the enemies of serving the children, helping the poor or healing the sick.
Most recently, it is religion — rather than gender, race or ethnicity — that is being grafted onto the management of organizations of different kinds. This trend — if it is one — seems to have taken off with the increasing pervasiveness of religious broadcasting and the openly Christian nature of the current Bush Administration. Prayer breakfasts and meetings are a staple of this administration, and also of a growing number of businesses and non-profit entities. We have seen a significant federal effort to fund “faith-based” organizations, ostensibly rooted in the notion that they are more effective and honest in delivering certain services than are secular or public agencies.
What does any of this mean? What exactly is faith- or values-driven management? Is there such a thing as “Christian management”? How can basic moral principles be applied by managers? Like many issues in our binary culture, these questions have essentially two sets of simple, straightforward answers that share the quality of being wrong. People who are secular and who increasingly resent the excesses of the religious right view these developments as mostly hypocrisy in action and, at worst, grabs for money or power, or both. Recent events provide lots of ammunition for these views, but they are still overly simple and often cynical.
By contrast, the “values” group, mostly self-identified Christians but also others, reject the emptiness and immorality of secular society. They are looking for something better. They tend to feel morally superior to secular people and also appear to be excessively generous in overlooking or forgiving the sins of the hypocrites in their midst, especially those in conservative politics and the religion business.
None of this is really new. Both cynicism and hypocrisy were on display in J. D. Salinger’s 1951 classic The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield, the book’s (sort of) hero, describes a visit to his school’s chapel by Mr. Ossenburger, a wealthy undertaker.
“(Ossenburger) told us we should always pray to God — talk to Him and all — wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can just see the phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.”
And Salinger was writing in what were ostensibly more innocent times. To get at the question of values and management in our current environment, I believe it is necessary to take a step back, a move that must inevitably step on certain toes. Leave out the current political situation, the Christian administration whose legacy will be one of greed, corruption and — most damningly — justifying the torture of other human beings. Leave out all of the money-driven television religious phonies and Bible thumpers. Leave out public corporations that are largely incapable of escaping the mandates of “shareholder value” and quarterly earnings statements. And finally, leave out the spectacle of narcissistic public demonstrations of faith and piety that mostly say “Look at me.”
Using Christian moral principles as a foundation, what are the guideposts that managers can use in their work? Jesus’ message was a revolutionary and difficult one. It can be summarized in four words: love, peace, justice and tolerance. All other Christian principles flow from these four. How can the leader or manager in an organization apply them?
The first answer is that it’s not so simple, especially in a work world that often consists of shades of gray rather than black or white. In his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber described two ethics: “the ethic of ultimate ends” and “the ethic of responsibility.” In the first case, “the Christian does what is right and leaves the results to the Lord.” This person can always take the moral high ground and look back and say, “My hands are clean.” And all grays can be reduced to black and white. There are only two sides to each story. You are with us or against us. I did the right thing. The bad results aren’t my problem.
Those who live by the ethic of responsibility often do get their hands dirty. They make decisions that they sometimes don’t feel good about, not immoral decisions but messy ones that reflect a choice between bad and worse rather than good or evil. They feel responsible for an outcome, and that outcome has to justify the means used for getting there.
In this context, the question “What would Jesus do?” is not very helpful. As Garry Wills points out in What Jesus Meant, there are lots of things that Jesus did that we would not want to do, like abandoning your family at the age of 12 or forbidding someone from attending his own father’s funeral. In the next column, we’ll look at specific moral principles in action.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute Inc., a 25-year-old management-consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
Readers are invited to submit questions, topics or issues that they would like addressed in a column. Submit by clicking here.

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