Prussia meets Versailles: a review of Moral Mazes

Managers rarely speak of objective criteria for achieving success because once certain crucial points in one’s career are passed, success and failure seem to have little to do with one’s accomplishments.


Almost all management books are prescriptive: they’re self-help books for managers. Moral Mazes is a very different kind of management book. Where most management books are written by management gurus, this one is written by a sociologist. This book is the result of a sociological study that the author conducted at three U.S. companies in the 1980s: a large textile firm, a chemical company, and a large public relations agency. He was interested in understanding the ethical decision-making process of American managers. And the picture he paints is a bleak one.

American corporations are organized into what Jackall calls patrimonial bureaucracies. Like the Prussian state, a U.S. company is organized as a hierarchy, with a set of bureaucratic rules that binds all of the employees. However, like a monarchy, people are loyal to individuals rather than offices. Effectively, it is a system of patronage, where leadership doles out privileges. Like in the court of King Louis XIV, factions within the organization jockey to gain favor.

With the exception of the CEO, all of the managers are involved in both establishing the rules of the game, and are bound by the rules. But, because the personalities of leadership play a strong role, and because leadership often changes over time, the norms are always contingent. When the winds change, the standards of behavior can change as well.

Managers are also in a tough spot because they largely don’t have control over the outcomes on which they are supposed to be judged. They are typically held responsible for hitting their numbers, but luck and timing play an enormous role over whether they are able to actually meet their objectives. As a result, managers are in a constant state of anxiety, since they are forever subject to the whims of fate. Failure here is socially defined, and the worst outcome is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and to have your boss say “you failed”.

Managers therefore focus on what they can control, which is the image they project. They put in a lot of hours, so they appear to be working hard. They strive to be seen as someone who is a team player, who behaves predictably and makes other managers feel comfortable. To stand out from their peers, they have to have the right style: the ability to relate to other people, to sell ideas, appear in command. To succeed in this environment, a manager needs social capital as well as the ability to adapt quickly as the environment changes.

Managers commonly struggle with decision making. Because the norms of behavior are socially defined, and because these norms change over time, they are forever looking to their peers to identify what the current norms are. Compounding the problem is the tempo of management work: because a manager’s daily schedule is typically filled with meetings and interrupts, with only fragmented views of problems being presented, there is little opportunity to gain a full view of problems and reflect deeply on them.

Making decisions is dangerous, and managers will avoid it when possible, even if this costs the organization in the long run. Jackall tells an anecdote about a large, old battery at a plant. The managers did not want to be on the hook for the decision to replace it, and so problems with it were patched up. Eventually, it failed completely, and the resulting cost to replace it and to deal with costs related to EPA violations and lawsuits was over $100M in 1979 dollars. And yet, this was still rational decision-making on behalf of the managers, because it was a risk for them in the short-term to make the decision to replace the battery.

Ethical decision making is particularly fraught here. Leadership wants success without wanting to be bothered with the messy details of how that success is achieved: a successful middle manager shields leadership from the details. Managers don’t have a professional ethic in the way that, say, doctors or lawyers do. Ethical guidelines are situational, they vary based on changing relationships. Expediency is a virtue, and a good manager is one who is pragmatic about decision making.

All moral issues are transmuted into practical concerns. Arguing based on morality rather than pragmatism is frowned upon, because moral arguments compel managers to act, and they need to be able to take stock of the social environment in order to judge whether a decision would be appropriate. Effective managers use social cues to help make decisions. They conform to what Jackall calls institutional logic: the ever-changing set of rules and incentives that the culture creates and re-creates to keep people’s perspectives and behaviors consistent and predictable.

There comes a time in every engineer’s career when you ask yourself, “do I want to go into management?” I’ve flirted with the idea in the past, but ultimately came down on the “no” side. After reading Moral Mazes, I’m more confident than ever that I made the right decision.

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