It’s efficient, but not right
How morality helps to become more effective
(Reading time: 8 minutes)
Frank Ottenhoff
22 February 2018

No rhythm, no melody, no pitch, only the tone color. Temperament and a great virtuosity. Freedom and self-will as important values. György Ligeti urged musicians to play beyond their limits (‘Nein! Mehr!’). This is a short typification of this extraordinary Hungarian composer.

Maybe you heard Ligeti’s music in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining ('Lontano') or in A Space Odessey ('Requiem'). 

Banks are amoral. What about society?
Het klopt wel, maar het deugt niet‘ (‘It’s efficient, but not right’) is a book published last year by Stevo Akkerman, a journalist and columnist at Trouw daily newspaper. The central question of the book: is our society amoral? And with a focus on my profession you might ask: are organizations amoral? If so, what are the consequences? And last but not least: what to do?
“Banks are immoral” (Joris Luijendijk in ‘Swimming with Sharks’)
I will give a short impression of the book of Stevo Akkerman and will apply the framework of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt to give meaning to Akkerman’s findings. I will finish with some do’s for private and working life.
Akkerman interviewed the journalist Joris Luijendijk. He also interviewed a philosopher, an educationist, an economist, an historian, a treasurer, a CEO, a leader of a NGO and a few entrepreneurs. The central question: to which extend is our society an amoral universe?

What is the big story these experts are telling us? To summarize: the situation in which we live now they say is focussed on the economic, on efficiency. The keywords they use: ‘numbers’, ‘control’, ‘standardization’, ‘processmanagement’, ‘acting businesswise’. This is the ideology of our time they say. The economist Sedláček even calls it a religion.

Figures and control.

But then, is our society amoral, like Luijendijk concludes about the banks he investigated? No, it has a moral 1 the economist Sedláček explains: ‘Egoism, self interest, believing in the invisible hand of the market, the idea that people can be defined by numbers, the idea that life is about satisfying needs and that the ultimate goal of entrepreneurship is making profits, these all are moral notions’ he explains.

The next question: if there is a moral, is it the right moral? Or simply put: is it good?

‘Loss of the world’ and soul-destroying
What are the consequences of this moral? This is what mention the experts and leaders Akkerman interviewed: lost professionalism, lost professional conduct, diminishing quality of services, delivering the wrong services, lack of direction and lack of community. People are loosing their soul 1 and loose the reason for doing things. In the terminology of author and marketing consultant Simon Sinek, I would add: people lost the ‘why’. The why of their actions, and maybe even the why of their lives. Alienation, but a different kind of alienation than Karl Marx described.
‘Loss of world’ (Hannah Arendt)
Loss of the world Hannah Arendt would call this condition. It is the restriction or elimination of the public sphere of action and speech in favor of the private world of the private pursuit of economic interests and introspection. ‘World’ she defines as the space between people when they inter-act. In our times we would say ‘connection’ and ‘co-creation’. In her view the ‘loss of the world’ is a characteristic of modernity. In her study of totalitarian systems she found that individual isolation and loneliness can have severe consequences: they are preconditions for totalitarian domination. But why ‘world’ is so important?
‘World’ is the inter-action of people
The balance between work and action
Arendt’s framework is very suitable for analyzing society and organizations. So let me first introduce you to the framework of Arendt. My 2016 Christmas blog gave a short introduction into the ‘human condition’ which Hannah Arendt examined. She distinguishes three domains of the human condition, the three main activities of men: labor, work and action.

Labor is judged by its ability to sustain human life, to cater to our biological needs of consumption and reproduction. Work is judged by its ability to build and maintain a world fit for human use. It is the world of project management, economics and efficiency to put it in a simple way.

And action is judged by its ability to disclose the identity of the agent, to affirm the reality of the world, and to actualize our capacity for freedom. It is the domain of sense making and co-creation in which we have to deal with and have to use plurality, the fact that we all were born different.

The framework of Arendt is sharp as a knife

Work is the domain of production and profit. Action is the domain of development of society and organizations, it is the domain of purpose. Work is about people making artefacts (material) to sustain life, it is the predictable part of life. Action is in fact unpredictable because it depends on the inter-action between people (immaterial). Work is producing goods, action is developing communities, organizations and society in inter-action.

The business case sounds like this: without ‘world’ no development and in this way no continuity. The experts of Akkerman were in fact saying that work is dominant nowadays and that in society and organizations we do not pay enough attention to action. In other words: work and action seem to be out of balance.

‘Work’ and ‘action’ are out of balance
The philosopher Susan Neiman investigated the ideology of our time. She would say that the hard facts of experience (including numbers and figures) are considered to be far more important than ideals and reason. See my blog ‘Why truth doesn’t matter’ with Neiman’s thoughts about our time.
As mentioned before the consequences of the dominant moral are serious: lost professionalism, lost professional conduct, diminishing quality of services, lack of direction and lack of community. And if we focus on organizations: if there is no action, the continuity of an organization is at stake.

The continuity of an organization is at stake.

Without doubt enterprises need to earn money and efficiency is important. Without earning money profit organizations would cease to exist in the long run. We need both work and action. And we need to anchor the changes in organizations (action) in rules and procedures (work).

However, Akkerman found out that in profit organizations as well as in the public sector, processes and procedures are the main focus at the expense of professionalism. Should making profits or realizing quantities be the ultimate goal? Don’t we loose sight of the customer and employees? Production on one side and development on the other side seems to be a polarity which we have to keep in balance in organizational life. 1

So what to do?
What do we learn from Akkerman’s conclusions? How to act? Here are some hints and tips I derived from Stevo Akkerman, Hannah Arendt and Susan Neiman.

  • Be pro-active and take the time to think this over: is there a healthy balance between making things (production) and co-creation (development)?
  • In private life: is there a healthy balance between consuming and entertainment on the one hand and development and reflection on the other hand.
  • Try to find ‘the why’ of the things you do, in life and in working life. Change your habits and try to act accordingly. (If you are interested in changing habits of people, teams and organizations visit WoW-consult.)
  • Pay attention to professional conduct. Ask yourself how you should act as an professional.
  • Lay down your iPhone and have a chat with your colleague at the coffee machine and your neighbour. In other words: take responsibility, not only for yourself but also for the community you live and work in (team, department, organization). So take action.
Take responsibility, not only for yourself but also for the community you live and work in.
  • Organize your new habits and apply self-discipline. Use your rules and procedures to help you realize the things which are really important to you. This is work.
  • Be a leader. In other words: raise questions in your community and interact to find a common ‘why’. Let this ‘why’ guide you and your colleagues.
  • And again, take the time to think this over: is there a healthy balance between producing things and development?

Do you have any suggestions? Please let me know.

1 Comment

  1. Stevo

    Good read, showing how detrimental the lack of purpose is for our work. And why, in Hannah Arendt’s words, we need action.


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The development of an effective way of working of individuals, teams and organizations is the focus of what I do together with my colleagues of WoW-consult. Info  Insights from philosophy I use to innovate my profession.

Stevo Akkerman, Het klopt wel maar het deugt niet, de maatschappelijke moraal in het nauw, Lemniscaat, 2016

Susan Neiman, Verzet en rede, Lemniscaat, 2017.

Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.