I get anonymous feedback from students on my business ethics course, most of it  appreciative for getting the tools for being a better manager: a consistent set of rational moral principles. But every once in a while, there are a few (often the more ‘mature’) students who don’t see the benefit of understanding and applying such principles. They write comments like: “Too much time spent on philosophy/principles; we just need practical tips on how to be better managers.”

It is too bad for such students: they fail to benefit from the tremendous advantage that rational philosophical—particularly, moral—principles would give them. Their pragmatist mindset of “skip the philosophy; just give me the practical tips,”  hinders them from becoming better managers.

The problem with laundry lists of practical tips, or lessons from case discussions, is that while they give helpful advice—“Give regular feedback”, “Set a good example”, “Use simple, powerful words, such as ‘please, thank you, good job, etc.”—they are hard to remember, particularly when there are many, long lists. (Many management textbooks provide such lists).

Their pragmatist mindset of “skip the philosophy; just give me the practical tips,”  hinders them from becoming better managers.

Our minds are not very good at remembering long lists of concrete advice. That is why we, including managers, need philosophy—reality-based philosophy—that integrates knowledge into a limited number abstract principles, which can be easily retained and applied to countless concrete situations. Principles are fundamental generalizations that serve as guidelines in different fields of human endeavor, such as managing people.

We need principles even in the era of Google searches and YouTube demos, because once you grasp a principle such as rationality, you can apply it while thinking on your feet—when there is no time to search the internet. Besides,  internet searches don’t necessarily yield valid advice, like principles abstracted from observing facts do.

Rationality is the primary moral principle that Ayn Rand induced by observing reality. It tells us to use reason (observation and logic) as the only guide in our decision making and action. Other moral principles she derived from rationality highly relevant to being a good boss, are justice and integrity. Moral principles of course apply to all areas of human endeavor, but here I discuss how rationality, and integrity have helped me to be a better boss in my academic administrator’s role.

  • Rationality is the cornerstone of managing people well. It reminds me to find out the relevant facts, by asking questions and listening, before making decisions and acting on them. For example, did an employee really do what someone else says he did? Or what was the reason work didn’t get done: lack of motivation or lack of training? My actions as a boss depend on the answers—that I can verify as true first-hand.
  • Justice tells me to apply rationality to dealing with employees: to treat them fairly, giving them what they deserve, based on facts. Ayn Rand identified justice as trade: exchanging value for value, by mutual consent for mutual benefit, such as interesting assignments for their best effort. Employees deserve recognition for doing the job well but also feedback and guidance when their performance falls short. As Ayn Rand pointed out, justice applies to oneself also: I should only take what I have earned, such as credit only for my own work, and responsibility for my mistakes. Justice applied to treatment of employees yields win-win    outcomes: employees know what to expect and are motivated to be  productive, and by getting their input toward achieving my department’s goals, I can perform my job better.
  • Integrity reminds me to stay true moral principles, such as rationality and justice, as they help achieve my goals, while compromising them would not. It reminds me to ask before making a decision: Do I know the relevant facts and have I considered them? What does the employee (or what do I) deserve, based on those facts?

These three principles (and a few others) have made my work of managing people successful, with happy, productive employees committed to doing good work. These principles are abstract, held in my mind by just three words, yet they make memorizing or googling long lists of ‘practical’ tips unnecessary. Understanding the principles well helps me apply them to any concrete situation by identifying the practical actions it requires.

Nothing is more practical than rational philosophy—knowledge integrated into consistent principles. If you want to be a better boss, I recommend you learn more about rational moral principles by reading Ayn Rand’s work, or my book, How to be profitable and moral.

 

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad.Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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