Ethics in the boardroom is fraught with complexity. Whose interests do directors protect? Whose causes do they advance? On what basis – what ethical considerations – do they make those determinations? And how do they come to consensus about what is the right thing to do, or the right way to do it? These issues are aired in a collection of essays complied by Till Talaulicar in a new Research Handbook on Corporate Governance and Ethics, published by Edward Elgar.
My contribution to it is called “A pragmatist case for thoughtfulness and experimentation in corporate governance.” It conducts a series of thought experiments and considers how directors – you and I – might reason our way to a decision. The chapter builds a case for act-based ethics, rather than following rules, especially when the situations are novel and directors are divided over which type of ethical consideration apply.
“Despite decades of theorising and empirical research, the problems of corporate governance seem intractable, particularly the relationships between investors and companies. The thought experiment in this paper asks us to look at the problem through a fresh lens. It draws on the quaint British legal custom of calling shareholders “members”, and then uses the political philosopher Michael Walzer’s idea of membership in states, clubs, neighbourhoods, and families to draw lessons for the corporate world. This paper suggests that seeing how Walzer conceives “strangers” in a polity, with fewer rights but a path to membership, lets us rethink shareholder rights as something to be earned, through engagement and commitment, that is, through stewardship. Rethinking what membership of a company might mean points to a pragmatic escape from short-termism without institutional reform.”
In this piece of literary criticism, I examine the question of how ideas manifest in two contemporary books we might well call “novels of ideas“. The paper’s abstract goes like this:
“Philosophically engaged fiction often employs ideas in ways that reflect the exploitation-exploration dilemma in developmental psychology: by exploiting well articulated theories by enacting their conflicts, or by exploring the uncertainties of puzzling ontologies or moral complexities. We can see this in action in many works, but some novels of ideas seek to defy such categorization, with lessons for readers and writers. This paper analyzes two recent works – The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) and Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen (2016) – to show how they deal with related concerns and settings through very different approaches. While Powers offers an enactment, its complexity seeks to evade the book becoming a simple polemic. McKenzie’s protagonist explores her muddled identity, philosophy and much else while flirting with the enactment of ideas when she does not comprehend.”
In a review of a new book, I examine the proposition that corporations occupy a bigger part of the landscape of political economy. Alexander Styhre makes a combined historical and contemporary case for it in his The New Corporate Landscape: Economic Concentration, Transnational Governance, and the Corporation. But after covid and then the war in Ukraine, in which states reasserted control over our lives, I ask:
“Is the book … accidentally an anachronism? And does its analysis matter to organizations themselves and the scholars who study them? The answers to those questions are No and Yes, though we need to use Styhre’s insights as prompts to think beyond the scope of his work.”
Scholars often say they examine problems using a “lens”. Sometimes it’s a “theoretical lens”. Others use a “philosophical lens”. But most leave the metaphor they employ undiscussed, let alone defined. In this working paper, I examine that metaphor and detect four different meanings in two categories – lenses that help us see better and one that let us see differently. An updated version, including a couple of worked examples, appears now as “The lens of theory: Seeing better or differently?” in the International Journal of Organization Theory & Behavior.
That’s the subject of a new research handbook. I’m one of the contributors. Oliver Marnet has pulled together writers from across the landscape of corporate governance for a book published by Edward Elgar, Research Handbook on Corporate Board Decision-Making. My chapter is: “Liminality, purpose, and psychological ownership: Board decision practices as a route to stewardship,” in which I argue that the way board conduct their deliberations can facilitate or impede the sense of commitment of directors. You can find it from the publisher here. The manuscript can be found in the Bournemouth University repository.
#corporate governance #stewardship #psychological ownership #boards of directors
“Abstract: I examine the often-denigrated concept of the novel of ideas from its inception, its critical decline, to its relatively recent revival. Using a variant of the exploitation-exploration dilemma in psychology, it suggests that early usage referred to works that exploit philosophical principles – or better put, enact them – by setting philosophical positions in conflict. By contrast, use of the concept for other, and especially more recent works sees characters and plots as exploring philosophical stances. The shift corresponds with the greater attention paid to complexity and ambiguity that are hallmarks of continental philosophy and neopragmatism, and with it greater need to explore philosophical stances through fiction.”
It’s available from Johns Hopkins University Press.
As part of its podcast series, Dorset Growth Hub invited me to discuss the role that boards – and corporate governance more generally – can play in smaller businesses. Theorists often talk about how boards play two contradictory roles: “service” – providing insights and access to key resources – and “control” – stopping a runaway executive.
But from my own board experience, I’ve seen how hard it is to separate the two. Let’s think about how serving on a board is like driving a car, I suggested, and then asked: “Why do they put brakes on cars?” Here’s the answer!
The publishing world for fiction is driven not just by what is novel about a novel, but even more by what other novels a novel is like. That is, by what’s the same, not what’s different. In this paper, I examine how category arise. Drawing on the theory of heuristics and bias, the paper – published in the journal New Writing – shows how the many layers of the industry create dichotomies, based on the availability of a heuristic to the reader, how well the work represents the type, and how the author can create novelty by confounding the heuristic and its bias by shifting the anchor points.
Three dichotomies emerge from the analysis, with parallels but also differences, corresponding to three layers of the industry:
“Plot-led vs. character-led” – mainly in the domain of writing coaches
“Genre vs. literary“- mainly in the domain of mainstream criticism, publishers, agents and editors
“Philosophical vs. psychological” – mainly in the domain of academic criticism.
Philosophical fiction is often called the novel of ideas. Indeed, Wikipedia automatically re-routes novel of ideas to philosophical fiction. I’ll have more to say about that category in other papers.
Philosophy of Management seems to think so. My somewhat unconventional article will be appearing in the journal.
Nordberg, D. (2020). Art in corporate governance: A Deweyan perspective on board experience. Philosophy of Management, doi: 10.1007/s40926-020-00152-y. (See manuscript version at SSRN.)
It uses the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey’s 1934 treatise on aesthetics to examine the motivation of company directors, reinterpreting empirical studies and examining the lived experience of the author. It also raises the question of what ugly corporate governance might consist in.Its starting point is the artwork displayed on the walls of two boardrooms, one a FTSE100 corporation, the other a social care charity…