Personal, Professional Behavior Inseparable in Business Practice
By Joel M. Podolny, Dean, Yale School of Management
We all are familiar with the saying, “It’s not personal; it’s just business.” Think about what this means—that work is somehow not an implication of self. But if work is defined apart from the self, the self – with its values, its aspirations – has no bearing on professional behavior.
We see this dissociation of self from professional behavior most clearly when there are ethical breaches. The central protagonists in the recent corporate scandals did not perceive themselves as “bad people.” Rather, they defined themselves by their actions outside the world of work: they were philanthropists, community leaders, church-goers, and so on.
Such ethical breaches are especially spectacular manifestations of the dissociation of self from professional conduct. But this dissociation occurs every single day when individuals simply fail to infuse the better qualities of their selves – their values, aspirations, and the positive aspects of their character – into their professional conduct.
A consequence of this dissociation is a growing cynicism about whether business is a profession. Society reserves the label “profession” for those occupations that are seen as serving society. Medicine and Law have earned the right to be called professions because their practitioners are perceived to serve a broader societal interest.
This cynicism about whether business is a profession raises questions about whether business schools are truly professional schools, like schools of law or medicine. And this cynicism affects not only outside critics; it also can be found in the attitudes of those within the business school community. It is reflected in the attitude of those students who think that the “real” purpose of business schools is to “network.” It is reflected in the attitude of some business school faculty who see themselves as preparing students for a less-than-noble calling.
All of us in the business school community must take responsibility for the fact that management education – in its current form – does little to undercut this notion that “It’s not personal; it’s just business.” We must acknowledge that for decades we have been teaching management education in a way that allows students to see business as not part of their core self, as not personal, as just a game.
The Stanford organizations scholar Jeff Pfeffer has criticized economists for the game theoretic overlay that their models place on human action. He cites experimental studies that show that MBA students are more likely than other university students to defect in prisoner’s dilemma situations.
Like Pfeffer, I am an organizations scholar, but I would argue that a bit of disciplinary introspection reveals that it is wrong to single out economists. Look at the typical “Power and Politics” course, and you see a no less instrumental view on optimal behavior than you find in game theoretic models of cooperation. Students are taught to trust only if trust is completely warranted, despite the fact that great acts of organizational courage and leadership typically depend on trusting when the consequences of that trust are far from guaranteed.
Looking at the business school case-method as well, a “situationalist reasoning” tends to dominate. Students are frequently taught to simply figure the best way out of a 10-page problem, rather than how to think about the problem in a way that is integrated into the students’ values.
So, what do we do? From conversations I have had with deans at other business schools, I know many faculties are wrestling with this very question. For most, the answer seems to turn on a reconsideration of the traditional business school curriculum, and many schools currently are engaged in this process. It is not an easy undertaking, but it is a welcome and timely one that will ultimately benefit our students, our institutions, and the management profession overall.
At the Yale School of Management, we are answering this fundamental question by introducing a curriculum that strives to put a renewed emphasis on teaching management as a professional practice where work activity and personal values cannot be dissociated.
We are eliminating disciplinary silos as the primary frameworks for conveying knowledge, ideas, and insights. To be clear, we are not getting rid of discipline-based scholarship or pedagogy. On the contrary, it is the traditional management disciplines that create valid standards for truthfulness and link us to the great university of which we are a part. But my Yale faculty colleagues and I have come to the realization that while knowledge may be generated out of the disciplines, it may not be best conveyed within those disciplinary silos. Interdisciplinary faculty teams have designed new courses focused on developing a cognitive empathy with a network of constituencies – the customer, the investor, the employee, and so forth – that general managers must engage in order to be effective. These eight new courses, called “Organizational Perspectives,” constitute the central courses of our new MBA curriculum.
We also are implementing a series of courses and programs designed to enhance our students’ discernment of self. Right now, MBAs are too focused on their first job. But we know from good research that first job is not destiny. Individuals do not spend 35 years with the same firm; they cross boundaries of organizations, occupations, industries, and sectors. We are making our students aware of this fact, and creating opportunities for them to reflect on who they are as individuals – what they value, what goals and objectives they regard as meaningful and important.
We have added specific courses in Problem Framing and in Careers, and a required formal Mentorship Program to help in this regard. The Problem Framing course gives students an introduction to the process by which problems are framed, with the idea that if the questions – in life or in career – are properly asked, the correct answers will be more easily detected. The Careers course focuses not on finding a job, but on how personal aspirations and values intersect with career goals in the long-term. The Mentorship Program is designed to enable students to be more reflective and intentional about their MBA studies as they relate not only to the students’ goals and aspirations, but also to our school’s mission of educating leaders for business and society.
In this way, we believe we are enabling our students to connect their professional education with their own aspirations and personal values – and with their selves.
It is business. But it also is personal.
Originally published in the September 2006 issue of the AACSB eNewsline. Reproduced with permission by AACSB International - The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Organized in 1916, AACSB International is the premier accrediting agency for bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs in business administration and accounting. Yale University is a founding member.