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January 2022

Moral Mazes: On "bureaucratic ethics" (Introduction, part 2).

Day 3 of our read-along of Robert Jackall's classic work Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.

So last time I was reading just the introduction of this book and it was knocking me over. Never more so than when I read Jackall's explanation of what bureaucratic work, such as that often found among the managerial class in corporations and organizations, does to people.

Consider:

"Bureaucratic work shapes people's consciousness in decisive ways. Among other things, it regularizes people's experiences of time and indeed routinizes their lives by engaging them on a daily basis in rational, socially approved, purposive action; it brings them into daily proximity with and subordination to authority, creating in the process upward-looking stances that have decisive social and psychological consequences...it creates subtle measures of prestige and an elaborate status hierarchy that, in addition to fostering an intense competition for status, also makes the rules, procedures, social contexts, and protocol of an organization paramount psychological and behavioral guides." (p. 4.)

Basically, if you want the status, you fall in line. This is how you end up with people in corporations telling Jackall things like "What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you."

Does this gross anyone out besides me? And you can tell me "Well, CR, that's just how the system works" all you like. I don't get any less grossed out.

I think this book is blowing my mind because it doesn't seem like Jackall is just describing corporations. It feels like Jackall is describing all of America (and the world too).

So here's the end of the Introduction, and gives you an idea of what is yet to come in this book:

"This book, then, examines business as a social and moral terrain. I offer no programs for reform, should one think that reform is necessary. Nor, I am afraid, do I offer tips on how to find one's way onto the 'fast track' to managerial success. This is, rather, an interpretive sociological account of how managers think the world works." (p. 5.)

And, psst...don't let the boring sound of that "interpretive sociological account" bit deter you. Nothing about this book is boring. Next? On to Chapter 1: "Moral Probations, Old and New."

Want to read our Moral Mazes Read-Along from the very beginning? Here you go:


Citizen Reader Elsewhere: "Tesla's Long History of Silencing Whistleblowers."

Excuse this slight break from our regularly scheduled "Moral Mazes" read-along. I just wanted to let you know that I published another article about whistleblowers at The Progressive magazine last week.

The whistleblower in question is named Cristina Balan, and she has been in arbitration and litigation with Tesla for nearly eight years now. Imagine, with everything else you've got to do, trying to prevail in arbitration and lawsuits against a monster corporation that has all the money and power. For nearly a decade.

Please do read the story if you have a moment and remember to listen to and support whistleblowers whenever you can.

A peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. Day to you. To celebrate, protest something nonviolently. Here's one super-easy way to start: Don't buy a Tesla. 


Moral Mazes: Introduction (1)

So here we are, reading Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, and I have no idea how to do this "share a whole book with you" thing.

So, like I do everything, let's just jump right in.

As noted in the prior post, Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes is about organizational behavior and what passes for morality in organizations.

When I first picked up this book over the summer, I was immediately sucked into its Introduction by the first line:

"Corporate leaders often tell their charges that hard work will lead to success."

I read that, and I thought, I like this book already.

Here's how it continues on from there:

"Indeed, this theory of reward being commensurate with effort has been an enduring belief and a moral imperative in our society, one central to our self-image as a people, where the main chance is available to anyone of ability who has the gumption and persistence to seize it. Hard work, it is also frequently asserted, builds character. This notion carries less conviction because business people, and our society as a whole, have little patience with those who, even though they work hard, make a habit of finishing out of the money."

And after I read that, I thought, Jesus Christ, I LOVE this book, and I'm only one paragraph in.

Go back and read it again. It's beautifully written and straightforward but the first thing we're all going to have to do is get used, once again, to reading something slightly meatier than the latest viral Twitter post or illiterate texts from our children.

Did you read it again?

Good.

Now, I'm not going to type the whole book into this blog, although I'm tempted, because of what I've read so far, I've underlined a lot of it. Because almost everything I read here--written in 1988 and then updated in 2010, so basically ancient--has the ring of perpetual truth about it.

Now that you've read that paragraph a couple of times, look around you in 2022. Does our society still have disdain for those who finish out of the money, even though they work hard?

Yes. Yes, it does.

So. What else does Jackall tell us in this introduction to his work? Here are the high points:

  1. (Well, this is actually from the Acknowledgments, before the Introduction.) Jackall explains that he is a sociological researcher who does his "field work" in corporations. In his research, he "examines managers' work, the intricate social contexts of their organizations, their striving for success, the habits of mind they develop, and especially the occupational ethics that they construct to survive and flourish in their world." That basically explains what the book is about.
  2. See above. Americans believe (still, to some extent) that if you work hard, you will succeed. And if you succeed, you will make money. And if you don't, you don't matter.
  3. Within corporations and organizations, however, people may no longer "see success as necessarily connected to hard work." What then, Jackall wants to know, "becomes of the social morality of the corporation"--rules of everyday behavior--when people perceive that "adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion are the real sorters of people into sheep and goats"?

Jackall further points out that, by going into and observing managers in corporations, he learned about their "bureaucratic ethics," or the moral guide they followed within their workplaces.

Tune in next time for an awesome summary by Jackall of why "bureaucratic ethics" are important to all of our lives.

(Also: Please note I don't want this read-along to just be me reciting the book to you. Please get the book yourself if you can! Chime in with questions and opinions! Ask questions! Make the comment section your playground on which to discuss bureaucratic ethics!)


Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, by Robert Jackall

Moral mazesOkay, kids, I know we're all busy and the world is crazed and the last thing we want to do is cozy down in front of the fire with a 300-page treatise on business ethics. I know you don't really have the time to read Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, first published in 1988 and reissued in 2010.

So I'm going to read it for and with you!

Starting today, I'll try and post more regularly than usual with whatever daily gems I get out of Jackall's classic sociological book.

Why am I doing this?

Well, I gotta tell you, for at least 45 years of my life I didn't give "organizational behavior" much thought. I also never gave much thought to organizations in general, or corporations, or how people who work in corporations and organizations get along with each other. This is for one simple reason.

I am allergic to organizations.

If you saw my work area, you'd know I'm allergic to any kind of "organization," full stop. This shocks Mr. CR, because he knows I went to library school and at various parts of my career have been responsible for making sure library shelves and systems are in order (as well as individual books, when I indexed them, because creating back-of-the book indexes is all about bringing order to a text and breaking out its individual subjects so readers can find them in the index and therefore find them in the book).

What can I say? I can understand and follow the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal classifications. I like reading nonfiction and breaking it down into littler parts that readers can use. But organizing my own mind, home, workspace, life? I'm helpless.

In the greater picture, I mostly dislike organizations and institutions. I don't like their hierarchical structures and their rules and their dress codes and their norms of behavior. I recognize that to some extent we need them, but I do not prosper within them. The only thought I had when touring my son's middle school at Back to School Night was OH MY GOD IT'S A PRISON LOOK AT THE GUN-METAL GRAY WALLS I HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW.

Nearly six months later, whenever I look at the CRjr's school, I still break out in a cold sweat. Not least because the other day, CRjr wore his boots and therefore had to pack his tennis shoes--and forgot one shoe. (Yup, that's my boy. Genetics are brutal.) So I drove his shoe over to school because if the elder CRjr cannot run off some of his nervous energy during gym and recess, life is not worth living around here when he gets home. I had to wait half an hour while the office staff called his room and then tried to find him because it was the opening advisory period and some kids were still eating breakfast in the cafeteria. They wanted me to just leave his shoe with them, and they would eventually call him to the office and he could find his shoe on the table of "parent drop-off" items, but I couldn't do that, because I do not trust his office staff. Earlier this year, on the coldest day of the fall, they had set him outside for half an hour on the WRONG DAY for a doctor appointment I'd signed him out for--using their software--so I was not confident they would do their job correctly. I could also not assume that my son would be able to find his shoe on the table, because he often can't find the milk in the refrigerator. (Sigh.) They also won't let any parents into the school, ever.*

That's all more than you needed to know, but you start to see why I dislike large institutions and organizations and companies. And now that I know that, I want to read about why that might be.

And that's why I'm reading Moral Mazes and telling you about it. More to come, but here's a teaser for what the book's about:

"What sort of everyday rules-in-use do people play by when there are no fixed standards to explain why some succeed and others fail? In the words of one corporate manager, those rules boil down to this maxim: 'What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation.'"

*Please note I waited in the entryway of the school and about a million eighth-graders who are taller than me streamed through the doors where I was. If I hadn't chosen to obey school policy and stop at the office, I could have strolled in with the kids and nobody would have been any the wiser.