Every discipline or profession has its own self-glorifying vocabulary. It is how its proponents justify themselves, sell themselves, and think of themselves and what they do.
Professors arrogantly celebrate what they do in the noble semantics of truth and knowledge even when they spend most of their time and energy battling one another for position in superbly trivial but venomous campus politics and plagiarising to publish to escape perishing. But who would question their commitment to the truth, to illuminating young minds, and to protecting the values of civilization?
Politicians spread out in the concept of public service even while they pursue personal power and abuse the fears and prejudices of their voters. But who would question their virtue of devoting oneself to public service and public welfare?
Eminent ethical doctors feel terribly upset that the doctors, long known as saviours, play a key role in promoting kickbacks and bribes that oil every part of the healthcare machinery. Who would question the value of human life and well-being and Doctors as the angel-guardians who heal and save lives, an undeniably noble cause?
In the case of business, however, the language of self-description is hardly noble or self-glorifying. The simple phrase ‘the bottom line’ and the vulgar verb ‘making money’ summarize a one-dimensional image of business that is disgracefully uncomplimentary and, in the public perception, extremely negative.
We can readily understand why we should applaud people who devote themselves to public service, or search for truth and knowledge or cure illness and save lives. It is not so easy to understand why we should cheer for those who, as they themselves seem to claim, are out only for material gain for themselves. In many ways, business is an exemplary human activity, involving as it does mutual attention to needs, desires and demands, creative and productive activity, face-to-face negotiation, acknowledgment of certain rules of fair play, and the importance of trust and keeping one’s word. When we talk about business as something less than fully human, or as degrading, then these virtues and concerns are lost from view and may even seem irrelevant. There is more than enough cynicism in the world about the callous attitudes in business. We reveal ourselves in the metaphors we choose. The business world is heavily influenced by images and metaphors that shape the strategies, structures and processes of organizations.
Robert C. Solomon (A Better Way to Think About Business: How Personal Integrity Leads to Corporate Success, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) lists some common metaphors used by business that he considers inappropriate to think about business.
Again and again we hear business described as a jungle, a fight for survival, a dog-eat-dog world, a game defined by its so-called winners and losers. “It’s a jungle out there” is one of the most pervasive metaphors that brings into business the classical Darwinian view of the survival of the fittest where the rule is kill or be killed. But this metaphor is grounded on fundamentally wrong scientific premises. Evolutionary systems theory shows that cooperation is an essential strategy in nature, and the jungle metaphor completely ignores this fact. Of course, some of the animal metaphors are charming: A nice boss is a “teddy bear” and a tough negotiator is a “tiger,” but most of them are demeaning. Employees, executives, and competitors are described as snakes in the grass, rats and a wide variety of other rodents, and insects and arachnids. Corporations in turn are described as fish tanks, shark-infested waters, and snake pits, as well as the botanical image of the jungle.
Closely related to the jungle metaphor is the conception of business as war and the marketplace as the battlefield. War, a familiar metaphor in so many corporate boardrooms (“the war room”), conjures up more bloody imagery than Darwinian Theory. The war metaphor feeds on our collective insecurity. Few of us as individuals would initiate a violent conflict.
Self-proclaimed realists will tell you that the world is a rough place, that life is unfair, and that only the ruthless survive. But what they call “real” is only the projection of their own bad faith. Why are hostile takeovers considered good business, whereas taking care of employees is considered soft-hearted and un-business-like? Military metaphors are intrinsically nationalistic, alarmist, pessimistic, conservative, and authoritarian. This has grim implications for the mental health of a productive organization. Paranoia is not usually conducive to creativity or competitiveness.
Just as every discipline has its own self-glorifying vocabulary, it also has its heroes, its role models, those who are admired from afar, looked up to and emulated. University professors sing the praises of Socrates, Newton, Einstein, Vishwamitra, Tagore, Ramanujam and Raman. But in popular culture and films, managers are stereotyped as masculine, selfish, mercenary, conscienceless, greedy, fixers, or out an out idiots. In business, we have a cascade of best-selling books lauding the management secrets of Attila the Hun (a major tribal military ruler in 5th-century Europe, best known for his savage fighting) and Machiavelli (connotes political deceit, deviousness, sneaky, cunning, and lacking a moral code). They are full of enthusiasm for “Sun-Tzu” (the art of war), but they neglect his compatriots Confucius and Kautilya, who know the real “secret” of Asian prosperity: virtue, integrity, and a real sense of community. Now, what does all this say of a civilized modern executive that he should take such characters as a guide to business strategy? And what does it say about business, that it honours such “heroes”?
Less violent but as dehumanizing as the jungle and war metaphors is the idea of business as a money-making machine. The machine metaphor transforms everything human into something cold and mechanical. Emotions, affections, and relationships disappear, to be replaced by mere causes and effects. Corporations are no longer to be identified with the people and personalities that make them up but with the system in which people are replaceable parts and in which personality serves as a lubricant or as grist and inefficiency. The business world as a whole ceases to become a matter of human aspiration and is reduced to market mechanisms. The notion of “reengineering,” for example, captures in a word what is wrong with so much of our current thinking about business. Employees and managers are, after all, “human resources,” to be replenished as needed. Do we expect the carburettor to be loyal to the engine? And what does the engine owe to the carburettor in return?
The sad truth is that the image of materialistic selfishness easily eclipses the many virtues of business and people in business, their dedication to their work and their companies, their surprising selflessness in facing the job to be done, their pride in their products and services, and their relationships with colleagues and customers. People do not just serve purposes; they first of all have purposes and personalities of their own. It is the “art of the deal” that gets celebrated, not the production and distribution of quality (even lifesaving) goods and services. It is the windfall profit, the “killing” in the market, the outfoxing of the competition, the cost-cutting and axe-to-the-max downsizing that make reputations and headlines, not the routine addition of jobs, the satisfaction of jobs well done, the camaraderie within the corporation, the unpaid (but not unrewarded) compensations of integrity.
Competition is extremely valuable and often necessary in business, but it is not as such the purpose or goal of business life. There is healthy competition, and there is sick, debilitating, depraved competition. There is constructive, positive, even inspiring competition, and there is mutually destructive, negative, inhibiting competition. War and jungle metaphors give us the latter, along with all zero-sum games whose point is to punch out your opponent, debilitate the competition, and win at his or her expense. Business competition, by contrast, offers us the best example of the former, in which competition serves as a spur to one’s own excellence and productivity. It provides incentives to improve, creating new heroes, ideals, and possibilities.
How we do business, and what business does to us, has everything to do with how we think about business, talk about business, conceive of business, practice business. If we think, talk, conceive, and practice business as a ruthless, cutthroat, dog-eat-dog activity, then that, of course, is what it will become. And so, too, it is what we will become, no matter how often, in our off hours and personal lives, we insist otherwise.
If, on the other hand, business is conceived, as it has often been conceived, as an enterprise based on trust and mutual benefits, an enterprise for civilized, virtuous people, then that, in turn, will be equally self-fulfilling. It will also be much more amiable, secure, enjoyable, and, last but not least, profitable.
Unless we transcend the dominator paradigm (to control, govern, or rule by superior authority or power), which seems to permeate the thinking and actions of people in Western civilizations, it will be difficult to come up with alternative metaphors and new visions like ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् the world is one family)’ to guide the evolution of the business world and the emergence of evolutionary corporations. Let us be reminded of Trimurti or Trideva (त्रिमूर्ति trimūrti, “three forms” or “trinity”), the triple deity of supreme divinity in Hinduism, in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified as a triad of deities, typically Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Let us not forget that the Supreme-Manager is Bhagwan Vishnu and let us draw out the symbolic and inner meaning of each of His incarnations (https://www.amrita.edu/news/inner-significance-dashavatars).
First Published 28 Jul 21
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