Moral Mazes, by Robert Jackall


Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, from 1988, is a good book and an important book. It is also one that I found depressing. Like a book about torture in some Third World hellhole, or the Rwandan genocide, it’s page after page of reminders of how low people will sink in certain circumstances. I wouldn’t say much of it came as a surprise to me—so I didn’t experience it as shocking in that sense—but it is saddening nonetheless.

Moral Mazes is a book of descriptive, not normative, ethics, i.e., it is a book of social science, not philosophy. It is a study of the beliefs, behavior, and moral worldviews typical of managers in large corporations.

This is one of those books that’s kind of in between an academic work and a popular work in style. It’s reasonably accessible to an intelligent layperson, but there are certain issues of word choice and such that give the impression of an author who is used to writing in academese and doesn’t a hundred percent overcome that habit when writing for a broader audience. So it’s a little denser and at times a little more of a slog to get through than the average book I read, but not terribly so.

I’m confident that at least in broad terms author Robert Jackall’s account of the corporate world is accurate, but it’s important to note that the data he is working with is of less than ideal size and quality, so you don’t want to be too quick to generalize all that he found out to all large corporations, or all large bureaucratic entities.

Jackall approached dozens of corporations for permission to interview their managers for his study, and was turned down by virtually all of them. Eventually he gained access to three corporations (a textile company, a chemical company, and a public relations company; they are all given pseudonyms, but enough information is provided about them that I suspect that if for some reason you wanted to you could ascertain who they are), where the very process of seeking their participation and being rebuffed or accepted provided some early lessons in how corporations work.

Number one, he got nowhere when simply contacting companies cold as a stranger. The cooperation he finally received from three companies all came about due to some kind of personal connection, someone he knew on the inside (e.g., someone he had gone to college with) who could put in a word for him with the right people in the organization.

Number two, no companies were interested in his proposal when worded in an accurate and straightforward manner. He learned that he had to alter the language to match the kind of euphemisms and corporatespeak that the people he was communicating with were used to, and to avoid mention of ethics but instead to couch questions of value in terms of public relations concerns, i.e., not how the company deals with matters of right and wrong, but how it deals with matters of public opinion or the perceptions of regulators and legislators and such.

So his sample ended up very small—three companies—and probably not representative either, since the tiny number of companies willing to cooperate might well differ relevantly from large corporations taken as a whole.

But, you get what data you can get, and work with it as best you can. He acknowledges the limitations of his data, but notes that at least as far as those few companies who chose to participate in the study, he went into great depth with them and spent much time questioning and observing their managers. Plus even if his three companies aren’t necessarily representative of corporations in general, he was meticulous about making his samples of managers within these three companies representative—in terms of age, gender, managerial level, department, etc.

He seems to have limited himself to whole companies that welcomed him into the organization openly, as opposed to getting some or all of his data from individual managers regardless of whether they worked for a corporation that agreed to participate in his study. I would have guessed someone putting together a study like this would have put ads in relevant publications or whatever (nowadays it would be on the Internet), announcing his study and asking corporate managers who would be willing to participate to contact him. I’m not sure why he didn’t do that. Granted, it would be a self-selecting bunch, and so probably not representative of all corporate managers, but as mentioned that’s already a problem with the methodology he did choose.

The way he did the study—with corporations that agreed to participate—he was able to sit in on meetings to observe and such, which he wouldn’t have been able to do with, say, an individual manager whose company declined to participate, but that’s a reason not to take individuals instead of whole companies, not a reason to decline to take individuals in addition to whole companies.

But let’s move on to what he learned.

As much as capitalism’s acolytes love to harp on how the system naturally rewards hard work, initiative, risk-taking, and merit in general, these things are only minimal advantages in thriving in a corporate environment. What are really rewarded are things like people skills and political maneuvering.

Broadly speaking, the biggest factor in career success as a corporate manager is how well liked you are by the people in the organization who can benefit you. If you make them uncomfortable, if they don’t notice you, if you offend them, if they develop an unfavorable opinion of you, etc., then you’re screwed. If you make them comfortable, if you fit in with them and their kind, if they develop a favorable opinion of you, etc., then your future is bright.

So if you want to succeed, you learn what gets you on the good side of those that matter. That means you know when and how to kiss ass, when to talk down your rivals and when to hold your tongue, how to let the boss take credit when things go well, how to shift the blame to a rival or underling when things go wrong, and so on.

There are countless little games and rituals you have to conform to. For example, it is conventional for instructions from a superior to a subordinate to be left intentionally vague. Often the end is specified but little is said about the means. That way, the superior gets the credit for ordering it if it leads to success, but the subordinate gets the blame for carrying out the orders incorrectly if it leads to failure (or if he gets caught acting illegally or otherwise dubiously.)

Jackall compares the environment to a royal court and a king’s courtiers. Everyone in management in a corporation is very aware of who’s up, who’s down, the idiosyncrasies of those higher up in the organization, etc.

Even something like how you dress has to send the right message, to cause people to be comfortable with you:

Managers have to look the part and…all corporations are filled with well-groomed and conventionally well-dressed men and women. [Students seeking managerial jobs in corporations] consciously decide to alter their external appearance to fit these well-known and widely disseminated criteria…Businesses always try to epitomize social normality, and managers, who must both create and enforce social rules for lower-level workers and simultaneously embody their corporation’s image in the public arena, are expected to be alert to prevailing norms.

Conformity in dress signals conformity in thought and behavior, that you’ll be an obedient “team player,” not a rebel, not someone who questions authority, not someone who stands out.

Conformity to the corporate culture in general, and giving lip service to its supposed ideology, is essential, even as you violate the values it pretends to embody:

Corporations are not presented nor are they seen simply as places to work for a living. Rather the men and women in them come to fashion an entire social ambiance that overlays the antagonisms created by company politics; this makes the nuances of corporate conflict difficult to discern. A few managers, in fact, mistake the first-name informality, the social congeniality, and the plush exterior appointments for the entire reality of their collective life and are surprised when hard structural jolts turn their world upside down. Even battle-scarred veterans evince, at times, an ambivalent half-belief in the litany of rhetorics of unity and cohesive legitimating appeals…But wise and ambitious managers resist the lulling platitudes of unity, though they invoke them with fervor, and look for the inevitable clash of interests beneath the bouncy, cheerful surface of corporate life.

Externally you must always be in control emotionally. As a superior no matter how much you’re ultimately going to fuck somebody over you can’t lose your temper with them publicly, but must just listen to them with a bland, stone face or even pretend to be receptive to what they’re saying and taking it into consideration. As a subordinate you must be happy, upbeat, optimistic. This is just the way things are done in that world, so you have to conform to that style if you want to get ahead.

An upper-middle level manager he interviewed adds:

We have training programs to teach people how to manage, we have courses, and all the guys know the rhetoric and they know they have to repeat it. But all these things have no relationship to the way they actually manage or make decisions. The basic principles of decision making in this organization and probably any organization are: (1) avoid making any decision if possible; (2) if a decision has to be made, involve as many people as you can so that, if things go south, you’re able to point in as many directions as possible.

So does what most people think of as merit not matter at all? No, it matters, because if you’re a completely hopeless fuck-up then chances are those who decide your fate will not think well of you no matter how conformist you are in how you dress, how skillfully you suck up, etc. But it doesn’t matter much.

“Corporations do demand, of course, a basic competence, and sometimes specialized training and experience.” But when you get right down to it, even some of this training is just training in conformity and such, rather than training to genuinely increase your “competence.” By going to one of the “right” schools, and sitting through a lot of boring business classes to get a certain degree, you prove that you know how the game is to be played, that you are willing and able to jump through hoops as required by those you need things from such as college admissions people and professors, that you’re flexible enough in your values, pride, etc. to do what you have to do to achieve a given goal (e.g., a certain grade in a certain class, a certain degree), regardless of what if anything you actually learn in your “training.” By displaying that you’ll conform to an institution or culture to achieve your ends, you signal that you’ll conform to the corporate culture and won’t let anything prevent you from doing whatever your boss wants.

In certain areas where there is an easily quantifiable bottom line—your division either made or lost money—you’re judged based on that, but even there it’s more that a certain minimum level of success is a necessary condition to survival or advancement, while things like your willingness to conform and your skills at political maneuvering are still the more important factors. In the bulk of areas, though, assessing merit or competence is much, much fuzzier and open to interpretation, and there the social stuff is pretty much all that matters, since however well or poorly you do on that will determine how your performance is assessed in terms of merit.

I think it also may be that 99% of these people are interchangeable as far as “merit” anyway. People who can achieve the necessary level of competence are a dime a dozen. So then tiebreakers are needed, and that’s where those who are good at playing the games and sucking up to the right people and such have the edge.

It’s kind of like the Hollywood casting couch. It’s not that skilled actresses are passed over for unskilled actresses who put out. Probably there are countless starving actresses pretty much equally able to handle some supporting role in a certain movie. You pick the one with the biggest tits or the one who is willing to blow you not because those things matter to you more than how well they can do the “job” they’re seeking, but because any of them could do that job fine.

Insofar as quantifiable things matter to managerial success in a corporation, the short term bottom line is wildly overvalued:

The pressure for annual, quarterly, monthly, daily, and even hourly “results,” that is, measurable progress plausibly attributed to one’s own efforts, crowds out reflection about the future…Managers think in the short run because they are evaluated by both their superiors and peers on their short-term results…Managers know that even farsighted, correct decisions can shorten promising careers.

Jackall many times observes and is told of phenomena such as purposely running a manufacturing plant poorly so as to squeeze as much short term profit out of it as possible while ruining it long term. So, for instance if your machines are falling apart, and you have a choice between spending $1 million to upgrade them properly or $200,000 to patch them up to barely survive another year, you do the latter, even though that’s just kicking the can down the road, because you want your short term numbers to look as good as possible, and you figure by the time it’s no longer possible to jerry-rig the machinery and the $1 million has to be spent, you’ll have been promoted and it’ll be someone else’s responsibility to clean up the mess.

That’s one of the consequences of people moving around, and up, a lot: You can escape before your short term success becomes long term disaster; you don’t have an incentive to care about the long term, or for that matter to care about the success of the organization as a whole since your fate depends far more on the (short term) success of the specific area you’re temporarily responsible for.

I’m struck by how even when reasons for success and failure are obviously independent of anything the managers did (like business drops when there’s a recession and then picks up when the recession ends), this is seemingly ignored, as the short term success or failure is still used as a reason to promote these people, fire those people, radically restructure a certain part of the organization, etc.

Of course the phenomenon of overrating the short term, and of ignoring independent factors for success or failure when judging someone, is hardly limited to the corporate world. Think of politics. If you’re a mayor or governor, people notice things like whether your budget is balanced. They don’t notice that you balanced it by making horrible decisions like selling off assets at 10% of their value. Or that you failed to balance it because your political opponents in the city council or state legislature or whatever sabotaged every effort you made to balance it.

Or if the country falls into a depression, you can be sure the president will fare poorly if he seeks reelection, regardless of whether objectively he’s to blame.

Politicians are judged largely on what good and bad things happen while they’re in office; people’s willingness and ability to examine and assess a situation more thoroughly in context, in all its complexity, nuance, and uncertain cause-and-effect relations, is near zero. So politicians are incentivized to do what they can in their limited power to make those short term conditions as good as possible, regardless of whether this is wise or unwise for the long term.

Or think of NFL coaches. The bottom line is what matters. If your team wins, you’ll keep your job, regardless of how much of that success was luck or attributable to factors you had nothing to do with, and, correspondingly, if your team loses, you’ll get canned regardless of whether you’re to blame.

In fact, one of my pet peeves about sports is how quick on the trigger owners are in firing coaches and general managers and such. You’re hired after a team has one or more poor seasons, the team’s record improves (which it will almost always do just due to regression to the mean regardless of how good or bad a coach you are), the team has a certain number of good—or at least good enough—seasons to keep the owner and the fan base and such satisfied, sooner or later the team has maybe a couple of poorer seasons (which is exactly what would happen even if all coaches were equal and wins and losses were determined by coin flips—you’d have good runs and bad runs), and you get fired.

What, you were a good coach that first year or first few years, then eventually became a bad coach and the team started losing as a result? No, it’s that you’re judged by idiotic standards and given credit and blame for outcomes that happened on your watch whether justified or not.

But getting back to corporations, another implicit rule is that while everyone plays the games, you’re not supposed to acknowledge it, and not supposed to call anyone out for doing so. According to an upper-middle level manager Jackall interviews:

The code is this: you milk the plants; rape the businesses; use people and discard them; fuck any woman that is available, in sight, and under your control; and exercise authoritative prerogatives at will with subordinates and lesser mortals who are completely out of your league in money and status. But you also don’t play holier than thou. This last point is as important as all the others.

(By the way, a couple quick comments on this quote. Why do people like this have “status”? Isn’t it an indication that there’s something morally monstrous about this world that horrible people who do horrible things achieve the highest status? Also, I wonder how many people who live like this are as self-aware as the manager quoted. I would think that denial and rationalization would be very common in the corporate world, and few people in it would be able to so frankly describe—or even admit to themselves—the gross abuses of power endemic to it.)

One question that comes to mind as I think about the corporate culture as described by Jackall is why natural selection doesn’t eliminate some of these counterproductive practices. That is, why don’t maverick businesses that don’t obsess about short term results but keep their eye on long term success, and that favor their managers who are actually best at their jobs over those who excel at sucking up, laughing at the boss’s jokes, avoiding making decisions, using euphemisms, etc. compete the pants off of these conventional corporations that sacrifice the long term for the short term, and reward their managers who are best at political maneuvering and ass-kissing and such, to the point that the conventional corporations die out?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I can think of some possibilities, though I’m sure none would function as more than a very partial explanation.

One would be the aforementioned point that the skills at political maneuvering and all that function mostly as tiebreakers, because in terms of how well they can do the actual substantive managerial work there usually isn’t much to distinguish one manager from another.

Another would be that perhaps generating the highest possible long term profits isn’t the only goal of a corporation. Maybe providing an environment where the closer people are to the top the more people kiss their ass and let them abuse them is another goal, and maybe there are other goals beyond that. So then if you look at the whole basket of things the corporation values, it isn’t clear that ceasing to favor those who are best at playing the current corporate games would be most effective at achieving (all of) a corporation’s goals.

Think of it in terms of the casting couch analogy. How did natural selection ever allow the casting couch to become a “thing”? Why didn’t movies where actresses were chosen solely on their acting talent consistently outcompete those where other factors intruded?

Because, one, there are countless actresses approximately equally suited to most roles, especially minor roles, and so you’re really not sacrificing much if any acting talent when you reward the actress from among that pool that is willing to put out. And because, two, you can have goals beyond making the most money possible when making a movie, including the goal of using the leverage of your position to get sex from hot, ambitious actresses, and it may well be that when you take into account all those goals then the movies made with actresses who are willing to put out in fact outcompete the ones that aren’t.

It’s also possible that the psychological and sociological factors that favor the common corporate managerial behaviors are so strong that the fact that the behaviors don’t “work” isn’t enough to eliminate them. I mean, think about all the stupid things people routinely do. Why hasn’t natural selection eliminated people getting drunk and losing their job, or people voting for demagogues who will bring about catastrophic outcomes for their country, or smoking, or a few million other things?

But moving on, think about the moral ramifications of what Jackall is talking about in this book.

First, as alluded to above, there’s the inherent phoniness of this kind of work life. Second, there’s the way that moral considerations that are not consistent with the corporate dynamic are pushed aside. Let’s take them in turn.

Managerial work, as Jackall describes it, is a constant selling of yourself to those who can help your career. You’re always “on,” always trying to be what those with clout in your organization want you to be:

In a world where appearances—in the broadest sense—mean everything, the wise and ambitious manager learns to cultivate assiduously the proper, prescribed modes of appearing. He dispassionately takes stock of himself, treating himself as an object, as a commodity. He analyzes his strengths and weaknesses and decides what he needs to change in order to survive and flourish in his organization. And then he systematically undertakes a program to reconstruct his image, his publicly avowed attitudes or ideas, or whatever else in his self-presentation that might need adjustment. As I have suggested, this means sharply curbing one’s impulses, indeed spontaneity of any sort, and carefully calculating instead both the appropriate modes of packaging oneself and the social consequences of one’s every action. Such self-regulation requires simultaneously great discipline and “flexibility,” since one must continually adjust oneself to meet the ever-changing demands of different career stages and, of more immediate consequence, the expectations of crucial social circles in ever-changing organizational milieux.

I’m sure to many people this doesn’t even sound objectionable; it’s just pragmatism. You want to succeed in your career, so you choose the means that lead to that end, including cultivating a certain image. But I say it’s downright perverse.

Many moral philosophers, perhaps Immanuel Kant most famously, have held that objectifying others—in Kant’s phrase, treating them as a means to something else rather than an end in themselves—is the very essence of what it is to act immorally.

The corporate phenomenon described above is interestingly different, in that the manager objectifies himself or herself (though needless to say, people like that constantly objectify others as well). But think about what this ultra-conformist, Zelig-like behavior does to you as a human being.

To some extent no doubt people try to compartmentalize, to limit their pragmatic phoniness to their work life while seeking to be more genuine in their personal relationships. But there’s no way what’s going on in the work compartment won’t leak through to the other compartments to at least some degree. It’s awfully hard to pretend to be a certain way for several hours every day to achieve certain ends, and for that to have no effect on you outside of that context.

Not to mention, this double consciousness (as W.E.B. Du Bois called the different faces black Americans were compelled to use when dealing with whites versus when dealing with each other) is psychologically draining. It’s a lot easier to have the necessary attitudes, style, moral and political opinions etc. at work if you’re not having to constantly turn them on and off but instead have become what you were pretending to be.

Or perhaps better yet never have to pretend because that’s always who you were. To step back from the individual level to the societal level, this is one of the ways this kind of corporate culture is most poisonous. People are socialized their whole lives to recognize these types of careers as somehow morally acceptable, and indeed admirable and desirable. So they often grow up with personalities and values already consistent with such careers. If they were told that there is something soul-killing and pitiful about the phoniness and objectification of one’s self of these white collar, managerial professions, they would be puzzled or indignant on the grounds that they’re not being phony at all. And with some justification, since their conformity is an instinctual part of who they are, not a strategic role they consciously adopt to succeed at work.

Then there’s the related point that the corporate value system competes with and crowds out any moral system incompatible with it. As Jackall puts it:

Managerial effectiveness and others’ perceptions of one’s leadership depend on the willingness to battle for the prestige that comes from dominance and to make whatever moral accommodations such struggles demand. In the work world, those who adhere either to secular democratic precepts as guides rather than guises or, even more, to an ethic of brotherly love, run the risk of faltering in those struggles. But those who abandon the ethics of caritas and hone themselves to do what has to be done must accept the peculiar emotional aridity that is one price of organizational striving and, especially, of victory.

And later:

In the welter of practical affairs in the corporate world, morality does not emerge from some set of internally held convictions or principles, but rather from ongoing albeit changing relationships with some person, some coterie, some social network, some clique that matters to a person. Since these relationships are always multiple, contingent, and in flux, managerial moralities are always situational, always relative.

Or as one of his managerial interviewees puts it: “What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you.”

There can be no values that trump corporate values. There’s no “But I can’t do that because it would be dishonest, or would be manipulative,” on, in the case of corporations that deny climate change or manufacture nuclear weapons, “would potentially render the planet unlivable.”

Things like that don’t matter, can’t matter. Or at least they can have no independent value. As a corporate manager, insofar as you do take into account any issues that appear to be moral ones you must instead couch them as matters of corporate self-interest. So when it comes to bribery, false advertising, releasing massive amounts of pollution and giving people cancer, etc., you either don’t refrain from these behaviors at all, or you refrain from them because to do otherwise would be “bad for business.”

Attributing a decision to moral considerations is too soft, too mushy, too liberal. But it’s OK to do it because regulators are closely watching you, or because you’re trying to avoid a backlash from public opinion.

As I say, Moral Mazes is a depressing book. It’s like taking a tour of a moral sewer.

I’ve made plenty of good and bad major life decisions. But one of the absolute best I ever made was to never get on the track to any kind of career like this, anything that would require me to live my life, or at least my work life, like these people. These are certainly well-compensated jobs, and generally high prestige jobs, but the moral cost is too high, much too high.

Remaining outside that world, or the world of conventional “success” in general, has had its obvious downside for me, but I cherish the fact that it has allowed me to retain a sort of outsider perspective, to not have to rationalize egregious behavior in order to be able to live with myself, to have the freedom to adopt a moral code based on its merits rather than on its being easily subordinated to the situational ethics of some corporate career.

The last section of Moral Mazes concerns the public relations industry specifically, and some of what Jackall has to say fits one of the things that has troubled me since a young age, namely that aside from the communication in personal relationships (and frankly only some of that), the overwhelming majority of the messages we receive in life are chosen for strategic, pragmatic, manipulative purposes, where truth is coincidental at best. Usually the motive behind these messages is the self-interest of the person or organization expressing them, though at times the motive can be a more paternalistic one of trying to manipulate the person or people on the receiving end for their own good, but in either case there’s that fundamental moral disrespect, the kind of thing Kant wrote about as failing to treat people as ends in themselves.

In short, it’s all bullshit. Everything is staged. People don’t say the things they say to you because they’re true and because they mean them, but because they think saying them will help them achieve some end they’re seeking.

To most people, that’s not even objectionable; it’s just life. To me it has always been sickening.

Jackall believes that it is public relations—broadly speaking—that is responsible for our public space being this way. Public relations has transformed social reality by transforming how we perceive reality (social and otherwise).

I’ll close with a lengthy quotation:

In the course of a single day, the average middle-class citizen might easily hear on radio snatches of several speeches given by government or corporate officials but ghostwritten by a public relations wordsmith; tune in to the plethora of staged media events that dot his television screen, for instance, press conferences, talk-show panel discussions, celebrations of achievement such as the Emmy presentations or the Academy Awards, the pregame, postgame, and even midgame interviews with players and coaches that have transformed sporting events, or interviews of “spokesmen” or “spokeswomen” for books, companies, self-improvement courses, social causes, or even scientific theories; see in passing on the screen a few of the thousands of “news clips,” the electronic descendants of press handouts that report feature stories related to a company’s business—like a feature on daylight saving time by a watch company, or a series on the medical uses of procedures utilizing small amounts of radioactive materials by a group of nuclear physicians; visit a museum to see an exhibit of, say, Egyptian art sponsored by a design corporation that, coincidentally, has just released its latest line of apparel featuring the new Egyptian look; receive newsletters from some of the thousands of organizations, public or private, politically conservative, liberal, or radical, eleemosynary, educational, or religious, that routinely manufacture official or counterofficial versions of reality suiting their needs; read in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times accounts of specific events or larger trends attributed to “informed sources,” the code name for public relations men and women; or see in the same journals the results of the latest public opinion poll on the most serious or the most banal topic conducted by an “independent research firm,” actually a wholly-owned subsidiary or a subcontractor of a public relations agency…Paradoxically, the more artifice used in constructing social reality, the more does that reality come for many to seem commonplace, natural, and taken for granted.


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