Are the Unethical in Business Also Untalented?

If disgraced hedge-fund manager Raj Rajaratnam were good at his job, couldn’t he have done well without insider trading?

Unethical (and illegal) behaviour in business is often compared to breaking the rules in sports. And it has always seemed to me that the sportsman who cheats is basically admitting he’s not good enough to win any other way. Same goes for the student who cheats on a test — she cheats because she knows she hasn’t got what it takes to get a passing grade any other way.

Too often, in the world of business, those caught doing something unethical end up being regarded as “great but flawed.” The story that gets told is usually a Shakespearean one of a talented business mind driven to the dark side by greed, ambition, etc. So Rajaratnam gets described as “brilliant”. And Enron’s Jeff Skilling was, after all, “the smartest guy in the room.”

Now, this line of thinking has occurred to me before, namely that if you have to do something unethical to make a profit, then you’re just not very good at your job. But I was reminded of it by Andrew Potter’s recent blog entry on countersignalling, and how refusal to use modern, high-powered hunting bows might be a way of signalling the hunter’s true skill, and consequent refusal to ‘cheat’.

I sense there’s an opening for a potent new narrative here. When someone is caught doing something unethical in business, we should, in addition to criticizing their lack of character, and perhaps worrying about the institutional structures that facilitated their wrongdoing, also mock their lack of business acumen. Yes, mock. We should mock them the same way we might mock the hunter who uses a sniper rifle to take out a deer. Or maybe the guy who shoots fish in a barrel. Oh, congratulations, tough guy. And we should reserve our praise not for the shrewdness of the Rajaratnams and Skillings and Madoffs of the world, but for the quiet sagacity of the other guy, the truly talented one who quietly goes about building and maintaining a thriving business without having to resort to cheating.

5 comments so far

  1. Jayaraman Rajah Iyer on

    Well said – “The truly talented one who quietly goes about building and maintaining a thriving business without having to resort to cheating.” I feel such talented ones have to be brought together to throw out the ones who cheat, be it in business or sports. It proves beyond doubt all Chapter 11 cases were the result of unethical practices of the said companies. As a corollary companies with sustainability of values alone will end up with sustainable profits.

    I consider UNGC 10 Principles adhered to, by companies would make them identifiable in the business scenario as someone who can be trusted. These companies with the UNGC label attached must alone be recognized for say Government contracts or as suppliers. This would automatically exclude those companies who may struggle to get UNGC standards certified. UNGC 10 Principles must be extended to every company as a mandatory report, similar to Balance Sheet filing, for running any business. At the same time UNCAC being applied to all government departments would ensure an ethically based corporate & government business transactions. UNCAC is a component part of UNGC by Principle 10.

    It is possible to create such a business environment but hurdles seem to be from companies that would not like to lose their leverage lest their influence is hampered in the market. The 2nd rung companies, if they come together with UNGC certification and uniformly make it compulsory for government & private supplies with ethically qualitative inputs, then they can shake the big business as well the incalcitrant cheaters.

  2. Carol Sanford on

    I see similar things. People are often unskilled coupled with organizations that are designed to cause particular behaviors. I think it is often personal capability rather than professional capability that sends people astray. I have meet very few evil (only one comes to mind) in my 35 years as a resource to Corporate America and C suite officers. Most lack the professional capability as you suggest Chris. And the lack the personal capability to be self managing. I argue in my new book that The Responsible Business engages in on going development of people, not just so they are able to work creatively in a ethical way, but also so they are able to contribute in meaningful ways and express themselves and their potential. The limited capability that your speak of hear and bad work designs limits even the purely ethical. Carol Sanford, author, The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success, Named to CNBCs shortlist for business books to read for 2011

  3. Ben on

    “reserve our praise not for the shrewdness of the Rajaratnams and Skillings and Madoffs of the world, but for the quiet sagacity of the other guy, the truly talented one who quietly goes about building and maintaining a thriving business without having to resort to cheating.”

    Only problem with that is, it’s hard to tell that the quiet guy isn’t also cheating :) he might just be better at it.

  4. Jay on

    I agree with most that is said here. I think it goes deeper to how these people get into these positions? Society seems to accept the notion of “it’s not what you know, but who you know”? Another unbalancing aspect of our so called democratic environment.

    Interesting how these institutional structures do accept these people. I am not saying this is a bad thing (it usually isn’t bad until something goes wrong). The “gate-keepers” of organisations seem to create personality criteria that suits a certain job role.Perhap this needs closer inspection?

  5. [...] Third, ask whether unscrupulous (or merely ‘grey zone’) behaviour is being used to cover up poor performance. It may be that the Sales Manager who feels the need to offer bribes simply isn’t very good at his job and is looking for ways to succeed without having sufficient talent or making sufficient effort. Sometimes lack of ethics suggests lack of competency. [...]


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