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Step 26: Moral Mazes (part 1)

Corporations are vast, control much of country, and have a completely different moral code, or some would say immoral code that influences our society. Robert Jackall takes a look at the Moral Mazes of corporate middle managers to ascertain the unique ethics that allow success in a company or business. Guess what? They are a bit sociopathic.

music courtesy of Feslyian Studios [link]

Robert Jackall
Moral Mazes [1988] [link]

Protestant Work Ethic

Max Weber has a phrase: “secular ascetism” where you subjugate your impulses to God’s will, through “restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling”. This entangles religious values (hard work, self-reliance, frugality) with work values and success, but over time the religious trappings slipped, opening up to conspicuous wealth and consumer culture. So, while frugality disappeared, self-reliance, gumption, and a foggy notion that morality is linked to success/wealth remained in the workplace. 

Yet, also the workplace was becoming industrialized through Taylorism, supercharging bureaucracy. This new bureaucratic structure took those once human/religious virtues and built them into the workplace through regularized time-schedules, work procedures, and administrative hierarchies.

We don’t need to know your character, we have spreadsheets. 

This system of bureaucratic industry spread into government and private sector, needing clerks, technicians, and myriad levels of managers to maintain it. A new class emerged: the big salaried man completely dependent and devoted to the corporation. (So much for self-reliance or dedication to God or even family.)
As Jackall points out, is not just being IN the organization, but OF the organization. 

Pyramid Politics

Corporations centralize authority in the CEO (the King) while decentralizing it through Presidents, VP’s, District and Regional Managers. Reporting becomes a “web of commitments” tying people to goals and reinforcing fealty relationships.

To issue a command from the top triggers a cascade of downward pressure to achieve an improbable task, especially when bound by a bureaucratic system. Hence a willingness to sacrifice or bend rules to achieve the King’s whims is championed as “loyalty,” and CEO’s tend to promote those who have the “capacity for creative problem solving” … which is usually shady.

But you must be loyal in the right order: The rule is, you should be loyal to your boss directly above you. Equally, part of your job is to protect your boss from embarrassing themselves or the company. 

“symbolically reinforce at every turn his own subordination and his willing acceptance of the obligations of his fealty.”

Robert Jackall

Credit and the King

Bosses give vague instructions, purportedly to encourage subordinates autonomy. But really it is a cover your ass method, 1) because they don’t understand the details, or 2) they need a fall guy and deniability.

details are pushed down and credit is pulled up

Credit or praise is a currency, not to be casually bestowed, it is to be used at the boss’s prudence.

This type of sagacity is especially egregious around the CEO where managers engage in irrational budget expenditures to appease a perceived preference, a wish, a whim. Jackall talks of repainting a whole building to impress a CEO, or dropping $10k on a custom made book… and the justification is, if you don’t appease the capricious king or queen today, your head could be on a pike tomorrow. 

One tool in a CEO’s chest is the “shake up” where they reorganize the whole company. 

This does a number of things: it reorganizes existing fealty or alliances, breaking up plots or troublesome dissenters. It also hides mistakes, as now no one is sure where the blame should land when things go badly. And it makes the Board and Wall street think you are aggressive. Meanwhile, it promotes anxiousness and stress throughout your company, often reinforcing the perception of needing to cater to the CEO’s capricious moods, lest you be fired.

Success and Failure

Striving for success is a moral imperative in America. 

Once you become a manager, you have proven competency, and beyond and it becomes much more about social factors, where you must align yourself with the “style and ethos of the corporation.” 

So… if you want to rise, you have to re-make yourself into what they company desires by staying attuned to social cues. This is known as Self-rationalization or self-streamlining, and it sounds a bit sociopathic, but we probably all do it to a certain extent: 

Such a manager “dispassionately takes stock of himself, treating himself as an object, as a commodity. He analyses 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 …” (p.59) 

  1. Appearance: indeed, the clothes do make the man. 
  2. Self-Control: Control all emotion behind a mask of amiable blandness, never lose your temper, never reveal a secret.
  3. Be a Team Player: Convictions of any sort are suspect:
    “To me, a person can have any beliefs they want, as long as they leave them at home.”
    Managers want team player who will agree with consensus, even though they personally disagree.
    “Someone who is talking team play is out to squash dissent… The troublemaker is often a creative person, but creative people don’t get ahead. Dependable team players do. In fact, bosses don’t want to hear the truth.”
  4. Style: Be witty, charming, affable, articulate, with an indefinable sophistication when you give reports and mingle.

Social Performance

So, I know it’s hard to believe that being a chameleon good at team play with some lucky connections is all it takes: you have to hit your numbers most of the time. But even if you are hitting your numbers all the time, but lacking the right personality or team play, you will never rise. 

When there is no longer an objective standard for success, it isn’t your performance that breaks you, it is other people. 

Managers realize, more than most, that there is a capriciousness to their advancement, often based on organizational contingency, luck and timing. And that is internal to the company, but there are also external factors that disrupt the workplace and market. 

Managers are very very aware of the ‘optics’ – it might actually be the key point to survival – and they realize the only thing they can do to better ensure their fate is to be seen working hard, putting in the hours (even though productivity may not help), and better streamlining yourself, wearing the right masks, practicing the vocabularies of discourse, knowing the right people, and subtly self-promoting. 

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Robert Jackall :Moral Mazes [link]

Max Weber: Protestant Work Ethic [link]


American Psycho [link]


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