Monday, October 20, 2008

A note about managers

The constraints that managerial divisions place on people often make it very difficult for individuals to "do the right thing" toward each other. That holds true in any institution where the individual is expendable: when the demands of power lean one way, and ethical necessity another, you put your own safety and security in jeopardy by doing what's right.

Good managers -- in the ethical sense -- will know enough about how their organization works to be able to maximize opportunities for supporting others without unduly exposing themselves to risk. But ultimately they do take a risk -- substantially more so than the people around them who merely "do what they're told." On the other hand, the "followers" are usually least prepared when the moral bankruptcy of their enterprise is exposed (this is actually happening all the time, but only occasionally on a scale that makes it obvious to all), and that is because by following they have denied themselves the defensive benefit of independent thought and ethical awareness.

It's worth noting that there are many popular allegories for this that come from other systems, like Schindler's List, concerning Nazi Germany; or The Lives of Others, a new film about secret police activity in the former East Germany. These films are important in what they reveal about the systems they describe, but they are universally relevant in depicting the moral challenges individuals face in all hierarchies of power, especially when the individual is entrusted in some way with the maintenance of that hierarchy. Naturally, the fact that the stakes were so high in Nazi Germany or the former GDR only contributes to dramatic impact, but there is no reason why analogous stories could not come from contemporary corporate offices -- less extreme by degree but equally objectionable; and, unlike abuses elsewhere, they are things that impact our everyday lives.

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