Promises Aren’t Enough


//sloanreview.mit.edu

By Rodrigo Canales, B. Cade Massey and Amy Wrzesniewski
Business schools need to do a better job teaching students values


It is a sign of the times that hundreds of Harvard Business School’s 2009 and 2010 graduates took “The MBA Oath.” These students promised to “serve the greater good,” act ethically, and refrain from pursuing greed at others’ expense.

We are inspired that students who will soon be in positions of leadership vow to reject the temptations their predecessors could not. But they and the more than 100,000 new M.B.A. students who enrolled this year will need more than an oath if they wish to become ethical business leaders. Simply put, such oaths sound much like chastity vows taken by thousands of teens every year. The problem in both cases is not a lack of sincerity, but a failure to adequately prepare for the moment of truth.

Just Words

Like a chastity vow, the M.B.A. oath has an unstated assumption that those who have gone before are somehow different: They had weaker wills, less resolve, looser morals. The oath is meant to signal a stronger commitment to values. The danger is the false sense of moral inoculation such oaths engender. Just as teenagers who take a chastity vow in lieu of better sexual education are more vulnerable to the consequences of unprotected sex—vow takers are actually more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior—M.B.A.s who take an ethics oath without enough supporting leadership education are likely more vulnerable to ethical breaches.

Executive Adviser

Innovations in management theory & business strategy – a collaboration with The Wall Street Journal

The power of the situation, and our too frequent disregard for it, is an overarching lesson from sociology and social psychology. Situational forces drive behavior to a surprising extent, much more than expected by those who believe character determines all.

This lesson has been implicated in one scandal after another, from Enron to Abu Ghraib. Pledges made without the benefit of experience with compromising situations, and without some kind of supporting structure, actually exacerbate the problem.

See Also

Further reading from MIT Sloan Management Review…:

  • How to Make Values Count in Everyday Decisions
    Joel E. Urbany, Thomas J. Reynolds and Joan M. Phillips
    A comprehensive framework can provide a common language for discussing decisions and values with colleagues, helping build a culture that better integrates the organization’s values into staff decision making.
  • The Importance of Meaningful Work
    Christopher Michaelson
    Too often, business students see little overlap between the jobs they plan to do and those they consider most socially responsible or would most enjoy.
  • The Education of Practicing Managers
    Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg
    Companies and business schools must work together to reinvent management education, rooting it in the context of managers’ practical experiences, shared insights and thoughtful reflection.

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