x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Harvard Business School preaches in silence

A review of Manufacturing Morals by the Harvard Business school professor Michel Anteby.

Manufacturing Morals by professor Michel Anteby
Manufacturing Morals by professor Michel Anteby

When the Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Michel Anteby tried to hang a portrait on his office wall, he was looked at curiously by his assistant. “You are not allowed to put a nail in your wall,” she told him.

A maintenance man was quickly dispatched, found the right nail for the job, placed the painting in the wall’s exact centre, and touched up damaged areas with white paint.

To make a point, the maintenance man said: “You don’t want such a nice piece of art to fall, right?”

Michel Anteby never tried to hang a portrait on his own wall again, releasing that such an action would be frowned upon.

Anteby, who studies organisational behaviour, has now written Manufacturing Morals, a portrait of the customs, routines, and rituals of the elite academic institution.

He contends that HBS instils moral frameworks in its faculty and students by keeping quiet about what should be taught and thought, while providing subtle cues concerning how business should be taught and thought about.

He calls this approach “vocal silence”. Whereas previous scholars of organisational socialisation have argued that changing the behaviour of members is a result of rules and regulations – the explicit cues that groups provide – Anteby argues that what organisations don’t say can be just as important as what they do say.

HBS thereby provides space for individuals to wrestle with the complex moral environments they encounter.

Whether Anteby’s work is a distinctive theoretical contribution to organisational studies is a different question.

Scholars have long pointed out that informal norms and cues play a vital role in socialisation.

And sociologists with economics training have led plenty of research on “incomplete contracting”. Contracts cannot determine what happens in every possible situation – or they would be infinitely long. So contractees, and organisations, have procedures, formal and informal, for filling in the gaps.

So whether Anteby’s big idea is a new one is debatable.

But the book is a fascinating study of the norms and mores of a mildly eccentric, intricately structured, complex and important institution.

Prospective MBA students, take note.