Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Business, Ethics, and the Risk of (Self-)Righteousness

Scott Sonenshein, Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Even Imagined

Professor Scott Sonenshein divides the the business world into two categories: chasers, who pursue more and better resources to do achieve their objectives, and stretchers, who make what they already have perform double duty and prove maximum return. Sonenshein, who teaches management at Rice University, uses language from business and behavioral economics to convey his message. I was shocked, however, to notice how he made a fundamentally moral point.

A popular mindset persists, Sonenshein writes, particularly among business professionals born into the wealthy class, or among people with very narrow, specialized educations. If we had more money, this mindset asserts, or better tools, or more people, or something, we’d crack the success code and become unbelievably successful. If only we acquire something new, we’ll overcome whatever impediment stops us achieving the success waiting below our superficial setbacks.

By contrast, successful businesses like Yuengling beer, Fastenal hardware, and others, practice thrift in resource management, utilizing existing resources in innovative ways, maximizing worker control over business decisions, eschewing frippery, and making the most of everything they own. Sonenshein calls this “frugality,” a word he admits has mixed connotations. But he’s clearly demonstrating familiarity with once-common ethical standards, what economists still call the Protestant work ethic.

Sonenshein doesn’t once cite religion or morality, either implied or explicit. However, when he breaks successful businesses down into bullet point lists of best practices, like “psychological ownership,” “embracing constraints,” “penny pinching,” and “treasure hunting” (to cite the takeaways from just chapter three), the ethical correspondences become rather transparent. Take responsibility for your choices, little Timmy! Work with what you have! Save now for bigger rewards later! Et cetera.

Scott Sonenshein
From the beginning, Sonenshein structures this book much like religious sermons. His points are self-contained, backed with pithy illustrations showing real-world applications. He asserts his point, cites his text, backs it with anecdotes, then reasserts his point. The structure appears altogether familiar to anybody versed in homiletics. It persists in religion, and translates into business books like this one, because it holds distractible audiences’ attention long enough to clinch brief points.

But again, Sonenshein never cites religion. He frequently quotes research from psychology and behavioral economics to demonstrate how scrutiny supports his principles. But if he’s proffering a business gospel, it’s a purely secularized one. Though Sonenshein comes from the same mold as religious capitalists like Norman Vincent Peale, Zig Ziglar, and Og Mandino, he never relies upon revealed religion. Earthly evidence, not God’s law, demonstrates this gospel’s moral truth.

Oops, did I mention Norman Vincent Peale? See, there’s where doubts creep in. I had mostly positive reactions to Sonenshein’s points until I remembered Peale. There’s a direct line between Peale’s forcibly optimistic theology, and Joel Osteen’s self-serving moralism. We could achieve earthly success by aligning our vision with God’s… but often, already successful capitalists have recourse to God to justify their own goodness. I’m rich because I deserve it!

This often leads to retrospective reasoning—what Duncan J. Watts calls “creeping determinism.” In finding already successful operations, then applying his learning heuristic to them, Sonenshein risks missing invisible factors steering his anecdotes. I cannot help recalling Jim Collins, who praised Fannie Mae and Circuit City scant years before they collapsed. In reading Sonenshein’s anecdotes, like hearing Christian sermons, it’s necessary to listen for the sermonizer’s unstated presumptions.

Please don’t mistake me. I generally support Sonenshein’s principles. I’ve reviewed previous business books and found them cheerfully self-abnegating, urging middle managers to sublimate themselves to bureaucratic hierarchies and treat themselves basely. Sonenshein encourages workers to stand upright, own their jobs, and always seek improvement… and he encourages employers to treat workers like free, autonomous partners. Though Sonenshein never embraces an “ism,” he corresponds with my personal Distributism.

I wanted to like Sonenshein’s principles because I generally support his ethics. His belief in thrift, in embracing a mindset of ethical management, and of getting outside oneself, is one I generally applaud, and strive to apply to myself (not always successfully). Though I don’t desire to control a multinational corporation, I wouldn’t mind leveraging my skills into local business success and financial independence. And I’d rather do it ethically.

But like any ethicist, Sonenshein requires readers to police themselves carefully. They must apply these principles moving forward, not looking backward. Financial success often inspires implicit self-righteousness, which business ethics can inadvertently foster. I’ll keep and reread Sonenshein, because I believe he’s well-founded. But I’ll read him with caution, because his framework conceals minefields I’m not sure even he realizes are there.

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