If Aristotle Ran General Motors
The New Soul of Business
By Tom Morris
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 1997 Tom Morris
All rights reserved.
The Intellectual Dimension at Work
The first universal dimension of human experience is the intellectual dimension, that aspect of our nature which aims at truth.
Every human being has a mind. Each of us has an intellectual dimension to his experience. We need ideas as much as we need food, air, or water. Ideas nourish the mind as the latter provide for the body. In light of this, it's clear that we need good ideas as much as we need good food, good air, and good water. And, finally, what we need is truth.
The soul is unwillingly deprived of truth.
Truth is just that mapping of reality that corresponds to the way things are. Put another way, it is the relationship of accuracy that holds between a good map and the territory it represents. Aristotle wrote about truth, in contrast to falsehood, in this way: "To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is so, is false; while to say of what is so that it is so, and of what is not so that it is not so, is true." Perhaps this is enough to make you glad that you're reading me rather than Aristotle. Truth is our lifeline. Truth is our guide. The truth about truth is simple.
No one can navigate well through life without an accurate map by which to steer. Knowledge is the possession of such a map, and truth is what that map gives us, linking us to reality. The absolutely vital importance of knowledge in any business is beginning to be widely recognized. For discerning the needs of clients, monitoring the moves of competitors, benefiting from the experience of associates, and serving others well, it's hard to see how there could be anything ultimately more important than truth.
But it may be that the simple importance of truth is still far from widely enough appreciated. It's often been said that people nowadays must view truth as precious, they use it so sparingly. Even this little witticism contains some insight.
As hypocrisy is said to be the highest compliment to virtue, the art of lying is the strongest acknowledgment of the force of truth.
— WILLIAM HAZLITT
People who tell the truth, however difficult that may be, obviously have a high regard for its importance. But even people who lie to you indicate in a backward sort of way their partial, and deeply flawed, recognition of at least some of the power of truth: They think of it as too powerful to be entrusted to you.
Is truth both important and powerful in our corporate endeavors? And, if so, then how should we treat the truth? How, correspondingly, should we treat each other with regard to the truth? These are some of the questions we'll address both in this chapter and in the next one.
Those who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who delight in it.
Truth and Respect
We all have minds that must be respected and used. The first implication of this is that mindless work cannot be satisfying. No human being is a machine, and yet that's exactly what much of the economic theory and management practice of the last hundred years has tended to assume.
Don Petersen, past president of Ford Motor Company, tells an interesting story. Once when he was visiting a stamping plant in Buffalo, New York, a huge bear of a man came up to him and said, "You know, I want to tell you one thing. I used to hate coming to work here. But lately I've been asked what I think, and that makes me feel like I'm somebody. I never thought the company saw me as a human being. Now I like coming to work."
One of the most ennobling gestures any of us can make toward another human being is to ask her, sincerely, what she thinks about what we are doing together. What is her take on the truth? When we ask, wanting to hear, we treat the other person with a fundamental respect, and this behavior is then much more likely to be mirrored back to us.
We should cultivate an environment in which people are not afraid to tell us the truth. We need the truth if we are to steer safely through the difficulties we may face as we move into the future, and we're unlikely to get enough of it unless others are open to sharing it with us. Too many frontline workers and managers are reluctant to pass on a hard truth to the person they report to, because they are working in a corporate culture where it's not clear what the value of truth is.
I search after truth, by which man never yet was harmed.
— MARCUS AURELIUS
In a recent book in which he profiled three of the top corporate CEOs recognized as masters at company renovation — Jack Welch (General Electric), the late Mike Walsh (Union Pacific Railroad), and Percy Barnevik (Asea Brown Boveri), Tom Peters points to eleven traits that seem responsible for their success. One of these eleven qualities, he says, is that these individuals appear to have "a visceral affinity for truth." The capacity to handle the truth, the ability to get at it, and the skill to use it well brings with its exercise great power. We aren't likely to be expert at exercising that capacity unless we place a certain value on the people around us. And this is an important issue in renewing corporate spirit.
A few years ago I met Tom Chappell, founder of Tom's of Maine, a highly regarded personal care products company. In the course of a morning together sitting and talking on the front porch of a beautiful house in Vermont, I heard one of the most interesting leadership stories in contemporary American business.
Tom had established his company on strong moral principles, but as the business grew and more people were hired for their technical expertise in managing that growth, Tom began to feel that the company was drifting away from its founding vision. To regain his grip on those values that ought to govern business lives, he decided to take a sabbatical of sorts and go for part of each week to the Harvard Divinity School, where he enrolled as a student. Now, notice clearly, we're talking about the Harvard Divinity School, not the Harvard Business School. The company's board thought Tom had lost his mind. They didn't understand that he was just trying to find his soul.
One of the most important discoveries he made in his studies was the writings of Martin Buber, an influential Jewish theologian who lived from 1878 until 1965. In his book I and Thou, Buber explains that there are basically two fundamental relationships that can exist between you and another individual entity in this world. First, there is the I–It relation. This is a way of relating to something as a thing, or object, whose only value is extrinsic, or instrumental. When you stand in the I–It relation to something, you value it only insofar as it serves your purposes. This is the relationship you have toward a cup whose only value consists in its ability to hold the water you're drinking and to convey that drink in an efficient way into your mouth. This is the relationship you have with a copy machine whose only value is to duplicate documents, or to a computer that is no more than what it does, or rather, allows you to do.
The second basic relationship, Buber calls the I–Thou relation. This is the fundamental stance that one human being ought always to take toward another person, a relationship of respect in which the other individual is viewed as having intrinsic value, value in and of himself or herself, regardless of whether that individual can produce any further value for you.
If you have some respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them to become better than they are.
— JOHN GARDNER
In the tradition of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Buber holds that one human being should never treat another person only as a means to some extrinsic end but primarily and always as an end in himself. We should never use other people precisely in the way that we use objects. This of course doesn't mean that you can't ask another person to bring you a document, make a phone call, or run some numbers for you on a new account. What it means is that you should never view other people as having value only for what they can do for you.
The I–Thou stance is one of respect and dignity. That's why we are using the somewhat archaic word "Thou." It's commonly used in English to translate one of two German pronouns for what's called grammatically the second person. The English "you" is used to translate the more familiar of the two terms, which connotes a casual sort of friendliness, whereas the other German term, which conveys a more formal dignity or respect, is rendered by "Thou."
When Tom Chappell came to understand this distinction, he realized that his company had drifted into an I — It relationship with its customers, viewing them as if their only value was the money they could provide. And if that's how we view our customers, he concluded, why should they want to give us their money? Tom used the work of Buber, as well as that of other philosophers and theologians, to turn things around and change people's attitudes within the company so that they could become the exemplary organization they are now known to be. The whole story is told in an exciting and masterful way in Tom's recent book The Soul of a Business.
Veracity is the heart of morality.
— T. H. HUXLEY
For our purposes at present, the powerful point is this. When we do not create an environment in which truth is respected, we do not have a working environment in which people are being respected. The only way to enter a truly I–Thou relationship with those around us is to seek from them, and give to them, the truth about what we are doing together. This is the only way to treat coworkers. And this is the way to treat both suppliers and vendors on one side, and all our customers or potential customers on the other.
To the extent that you are truthful with another person, you show that individual respect. When you sincerely ask the other person what she thinks, you show respect as well. Any time you genuinely seek a customer's input, and really listen, you treat that customer as a Thou. This is at the heart of a morally sound relationship. And, done in the right spirit, it is always appreciated. Given and received properly, a concern with sharing truth inevitably helps to generate a spirit of cooperation crucial to good working relations over the long run.
Knowledge and the Need for Truth
Truth is the foundation for trust, and nothing is more important for any business endeavor than trust. Trust is an absolute necessity for truly effective interpersonal activity.
If people who have to work together in an enterprise trust one another because they are all operating according to a common set of ethical norms, doing business costs less.
— FRANCIS FUKUYAMA
It's said often that we are moving quickly into an information economy. We need to think about the relevance of this to how we treat each other in the course of doing our work. Do we provide the people who work around us with all the information they might benefit from having? Or do we withhold information until we perceive an absolute need for its dissemination?
We are rightly concerned these days about greater efficiency in our businesses. We've increasingly come to understand how important this is to sustainable competitiveness. We need to ferret out and eliminate sources of waste and inefficiency wherever they exist. But here we come to something almost never discussed when efficiency is analyzed. There is probably no greater source of wasted time and energy in modern corporate life than the distraction that arises when truth is not readily available in the workplace and speculation, gossip, and rumor rush in to fill the void.
Without all the facts relevant to their jobs, people feel lost and sense a lack of control over their lives and destinies. Nature does abhor this kind of vacuum. Human beings can't stand to feel helpless, so to compensate, they latch on to the first notion around that looks like relevant fact. And then the speculation or gossip spreads like fire, consuming the hearts and minds of the people it touches.
Nothing is swifter than rumor.
Human beings can't do without truth. If they don't have the genuine article, they'll fall for anything that passes for it. And this can create serious problems for any company.
As the Spanish-born Roman poet Martial wrote in the first century, "Conceal a flaw and the world will imagine the worst." Whenever you confront a problem, you confront the need for truth. The people who work with you can't be their best if they are busy imagining the worst concerning the state of the company, what you think of their performance, or what the future might hold. Truth, even hard truth, if passed on with as much understanding, kindness, and sensitivity as possible, is always the foundation for solving any problem in a sustainable way.
Such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
— THOMAS PAINE
A neighbor of mine worked at General Electric for many years, reporting directly to Jack Welch. It was his job to go in to GE businesses that were underperforming and either turn them around or shut them down. He tells me that the most effective policy was to announce to everyone right away why he was there, what the whole situation was, and what needed to be done if they were to survive as a business. Making available the truth, however difficult, always bolstered morale and gave the people involved their best shot at success. When his counterparts in other companies avoided doing this, he inevitably saw a mess of speculation, gossip, and despair, with sinking morale, decreasing productivity, and inevitable failure as the result.
In his book The Corporate Coach, James B. Miller tells the story of his remarkable company Miller Business Systems and Business Interiors, often cited as having one of the highest customer-retention rates among similar companies in the country. Early on in the book, he advises what to do when a problem will affect a customer. He says, "Go to the customer with the truth." Simple. And effective. He goes on to warn against any other strategy and says straight out, "Nothing but the truth will do" (his emphasis).
Soon after writing these words, I had a small personal experience that illustrates this point. I took my family out for lunch at one of their favorite restaurants. After placing our order, we seemed to have an unusually long time to chat and admire the decor. Usually prompt service complements the good food in this establishment, and as the minutes dragged on I began to wonder whether the young man who took our order had been a mischievous college kid pulling a prank with his best waiter impersonation. And we sat. Finally, as he dashed by, I asked this gentleman in the nicest of ways when I might expect to receive my soup. He looked astonished, as if we were speaking for the first time, said "Just a minute," and disappeared again. Was he going to talk to a fraternity brother in the back of the restaurant pretending to be a chef? In a moment the manager appeared, apologizing that our order had somehow been lost in the kitchen, and telling us that the meal would be on the house.
That one act of telling us the truth and taking responsibility for the consequences transformed us from casual sometime visitors into very loyal customers. The manager didn't have to come out. I had not made a fuss. Even if I had complained and asked to see him, he could have tried to excuse the delay with a flustered allegation of busyness and brushed us off. He didn't. He told the truth. And, of course, it isn't irrelevant that he also paid for the meal. But even without that additional kind gesture, the Rockola Café would have won us over in a new way. The manager went beyond the call of duty to repair a possibly damaged relationship, told the truth, and thereby brought it about that the relationship would grow to a new level.
In business, as in every other facet of life, relationships rule the world. A relationship built on falsehood is like a house built on sand; one built on truth is like a fortress anchored in rock. In his important recent book Relationship Marketing, Regis McKenna has pointed out that the corporate fads of the eighties are finally being superseded by a new wisdom. He believes that, instead of continuing to see companies lurching from one purported quick fix to another to improve their business position, we'll now begin to witness something very different. Henceforth, he says, "Companies will seek to achieve a superior position by building solid relationships with their customers: relationships based on trust, responsiveness, and quality." As we've seen, it's the first item in this list, trust, which is impossible over the long term without the deeper foundation of truth. (Continues...)
Excerpted from If Aristotle Ran General Motors by Tom Morris. Copyright © 1997 Tom Morris. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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