The morality of management

It’s hardy a novel or arresting insight to say positions of power bring with them greater moral responsibilities. It’s Spider-Man’s catchphrase for goodness’ sake. The reason  is obvious: a powerful role means that a person can have a greater influence on more people’s lives. Therefore it is really important to ensure that impact is a positive one.

Yet I’m not sure we do enough to think through the implications of this banal cliché. Sure, there are plenty of cases where we easily identify who holds power over others, and so we do hold them to appropriate moral standards – politicians and parents, for example. There are other groups, though, whose power is not so evident, and so whose roles we might not see as having such moral significance.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power that managers wield over their subordinates. For many people, their boss or line manager will be the individual that most affects their day-to-day mental wellbeing, at least beyond their immediate family. It goes without saying that a chaotic or unreliable boss can make your work life more stressful and difficult. But managers also have the capacity to undermine your confidence, self-esteem and equanimity in ways that spill out beyond the office.

Take, for example, the terrible conditions in Amazon warehouses described in James Bloodworth’s Hired. The objective requirements of the job are tough, for sure, but what seemed to me the worst thing about it was the petty tyranny of those who had risen to supervisor and who needed to make life unpleasant for those under them in order to maintain their status.

The issue goes beyond egregious misconduct and outright bullying. I remember one of my consulting colleagues who struggled to sleep after harsh words from a manager. I know of people who have suffered from anxiety and depressive symptoms because of an unsupportive work environment. People can be emotionally fragile than we realise, and it often doesn’t take much to cause them serious harm.

Academic research is beginning to explore the importance of bosses to worker happiness. A paper by Benjamin Artz, Amanda Goodall and Andrew Oswald finds that workers who believe their supervisor to be more competent are substantially more satisfied with their job. In fact, the difference between workers with the most and least competent bosses is much greater than the difference between the highest and lowest paid, as the chart below shows:


 Taken from Artz et al

Artz et al are surely correct that managers’ competence matters to their workers’ welfare – it is clearly bad to have to work for a boss you don’t trust and who makes your job more difficult. But I suspect there are other aspects of management that matter too for workers’ happiness. One thing that has often affected my morale is whether I think my boss is on my side, or whether they are going to exploit me for their own benefit. When I worked in consulting, for example, there was a big difference between working for managers who pushed back against unreasonable client request and defended your interests, and those who had no compunction about throwing you under the bus and overpromising.

A society that took more seriously the moral responsibilities of management would do more research to understand the management styles and practices that improve workers wellbeing, and those that undermine it – what is the relative importance of, say, managers doing their own job well, showing genuine care and concern for their workers, communicating in an empathetic style etc?

It is promising that policymakers are looking at management skills and training in an effort to improve productivity in the UK economy. Yet an appreciation of the moral significance of management would tie this agenda more closely to efforts to improve wellbeing. The government shouldn’t just be trying to create more effective and efficient managers – it should also want managers that treat their staff better.

Firms and big organisations, too, could do more to emphasise the ethical implications of management roles. Perhaps they could reflect on how they incentivise their managers, and whether this encourages them to mistreat workers. They might also incorporate these ideas and research into their training for managers.

Finally, as individuals, we can all do more to reflect on the power of our roles, the people who we affect through our actions, and the capacity we have to make their lives better not worse.


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