Why good managers do bad things

Business Ethics Why good managers do bad things

Published on 14.10.2020, Dr. Bettina Palazzo

I was recently chatting to the CEO of a technology firm about the wonderful new world of data and algorithms.  He enthusiastically told me about his trip to China.

He was fascinated by the fact that he could order his lunch from his comfortable seat on a high-speed train using an app and have it delivered directly to his compartment by bike courier at the next station.

Apparently, he didn’t give the slightest thought to the courier’s exploitative working conditions: precarious employment contracts, relentless algorithm-driven working times and no accident insurance.

My conversation partner’s single-minded enthusiasm for technology does not, of course, make him a bad person. This example merely serves as a very clear demonstration of how easily the ethical dimension can disappear from our field of vision. We are not used to asking critical questions as users of a new and exciting technology.  For the most part, we see only the glossy, enticing surface.

Just as we, as consumers, easily lose sight of the ethical dimension, managers and programmers in the companies that develop these products experience a similar problem: they are often so focused on the economic and technological dimensions of their work that they do not appreciate the ethical aspects. This selective perception is not fundamentally bad. It is inevitable! Every instant of our lives, we are confronted with millions of pieces of information, but we can consciously process only a small percentage of them. To avoid being hamstrung in our decision-making, we need mental shortcuts and filters. Unfortunately, these filters are often too selective and cause issues such as ethics to disappear from our radar. This can happen particularly easily if, for example, I – as a programmer or manager – have never learned to think about the ethical dimension of my actions from the very outset and if every member of my team has the same mental filters.

Other influencing factors, such as time pressure and pressure to perform, place further restrictions on these filters, resulting in tunnel vision:

  • The promise of earning money through data wipes away almost every ethical objection.
  • Today, most IT products are developed under the motto “fast and cheap”. People don’t take the time to think about the potential ethical collateral damage.

For this reason, digital ethics require management systems that consider the ethical dimension of products, projects and strategies from the very outset. Ethical retrofitting is time-consuming, generates costs and risks and cannot offset the damage caused to a company’s reputation or the loss of trust suffered. For this “ethics by design” approach to be effective, companies must invest in the ethical competencies of their managers and programmers, there must be greater diversity in the composition of teams and ethical problems must be consciously and willingly addressed

Unfortunately, Connecta cannot be held as planned. Dr Bettina Palazzo would have been one of the 80 speakers. An alternative programme is available through Connecta TV, Doc and Talk – find out more at: www.swisspost.ch/connecta.

Dr. Bettina Palazzo

Dr Bettina Palazzo has researched, taught and provided consulting services in corporate ethics for over 25 years. With her focus on the grey areas of ethical decision-making and the psychological causes of misbehaviour, she brings fresh impetus to ethics, compliance and leadership-related issues. Her personal motto: there is nothing good in a bad system (Adorno).

Dr. Bettina Palazzo

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