The arc of current management thinking bends towards virtue. Co-operation is what makes teams purr. Low-ego empathy is the hallmark of a thoroughly modern boss. Purpose matters to employees as much as pay; society looms as large as shareholders. But appealing to people’s better nature, and ignoring their vices, is an incomplete approach. Nor is being good necessarily great for your own career.
Take a look at the seven capital virtues and the seven deadly sins laid out in Christian tradition. The virtues are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, patience and humility; the vices are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, wrath and pride.
In aggregate the first set of qualities is the one for managers to emulate. Neither chaste charity nor lustful gluttony have much to recommend them as a management ethos; but only one is a lawsuit waiting to happen. Diligence clearly beats sloth. Greed is out of fashion. Aiyesha Dey of Harvard Business School and her co-authors have found that excessive materialism on the part of a chief executive can be a warning sign of fraudulent activity and out-of-control risk-taking. Pride is also increasingly seen as problematic: in a paper from 2018 academics identified narcissistic bosses by the size of their signatures and found a correlation with poor financial outcomes at the firms they ran.
Yet saintliness is rare and sinfulness can be underrated. Take envy, for example. By design organisations rely on competition as well as co-operation. A kind person might well be content to applaud other people for their success. An envious one will see someone to catch up with.
Psychologists distinguish between malign and benign versions of envy. In one, people try to close gaps in status by bringing others down. In the other, they are motivated to improve their own performance. A recent paper by Danielle Tussing of the University at Buffalo and colleagues discovered a third type of behaviour: people who skipped work or even quit their jobs in order to avoid feelings of envy. Understanding such emotions is a step towards harnessing them.
Pride can also lead to greater effort (as well as to gigantic signatures). In an elegant paper looking into the performance of German fighter pilots in the second world war, Philipp Ager of the University of Mannheim and other researchers found that personal rivalry fuelled risk-taking behaviour. When pilots received public recognition for their exploits in a daily bulletin to the German armed forces, peers with whom they had flown in the past redoubled their own efforts. Something propelled them to fly more missions, even though that meant a greater chance of being killed, and it wasn’t humility.
Patience may be a virtue, but it is not always the best quality in a leader. Research on the impact of managers’ moods on performance is pretty thin: one deeply unpersuasive paper from 2017 used facial-recognition software to analyse ceos’ TV appearances and concluded that expressions of anger and fear were associated with improved profitability in the following quarter. Yet forbearance can plainly go too far. Anyone who has worked in an office knows that the boss’s wrath can sometimes be the only thing that gets things moving.
Greed is not something to admit to in polite society but acquisitiveness still motivates an awful lot of people. In their research into CEO behaviour Ms Dey and her co-authors defined excessive materialism as owning a private home worth twice as much as the median house in the area; owning a car worth more than $75,000; or owning a boat that was longer than 25 feet. Of her sample of CEOs, fully 58% ticked one or more of these boxes; only 42% counted as frugal.
Gluttony may not fuel ambition but it could well be a side-effect of the hierarchies that characterise companies. Research experiments in which strangers are assigned a high-status role and a low-status role and put in a room together have found that those placed in positions of authority help themselves to more biscuits than the others. Even people who mean well may end up behaving badly if they acquire power.
If management is about getting the best out of people, it helps to understand base behaviours as well as noble ones. Employees are humans and humans are complex. They seek to improve the world and would quite like their own swimming pool. They want to mentor the disadvantaged and see their rivals fail miserably. They grab the biscuits.
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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “The grip of vice”