Tips for being a better boss—from philosophy

At the end of each semester, students give anonymous feedback on my business ethics course. Most of it is appreciative of getting tools for being a better manager: a consistent set of rational moral principles. But every now and then there are (often the more ‘mature’) students who don’t see the benefit of understanding and applying such principles. They write comments like: “Too much time spent on philosophy/principles; we just need practical tips on how to be better managers.”

It is too bad for such students: they fail to benefit from the tremendous advantage that rational philosophical—particularly, moral—principles would give them. Their pragmatist mindset of “skip the philosophy; just give me the practical tips” hinders them from becoming better managers.

The problem with laundry lists of practical tips, or lessons from case discussions, is that while they give helpful advice—“Give regular feedback”, “Set a good example”, “Use simple, powerful words, such as ‘please, thank you, good job, etc.”—they are hard to remember, particularly when there are many long lists. Yet, many management textbooks provide such lists.

Our minds are not very good at remembering long lists of concrete advice. That is why everyone, including managers, needs philosophy—reality-based philosophy—that integrates knowledge into a limited number of abstract principles. Unlike long, concrete lists, such principles can be easily retained and applied to countless concrete situations. As Ayn Rand has explained, principles are fundamental generalizations that serve as guidelines in different areas, such as managing people.

We need principles even in the era of Google searches and YouTube demos. Once you grasp a principle such as rationality, you can apply it while thinking on your feet—when there is no time to search the internet and sift through results. Besides, online advice is not necessarily valid, unlike principles based on observing facts.

Rationality is the primary moral virtue (principle) induced by Ayn Rand. It tells us to use reason (observation and logic) as the only guide in decision making and action. Other moral principles Rand derived from rationality—highly relevant to being a good boss—are justice and integrity.

  • Rationality is the cornerstone of managing people well. It reminds us to discover the relevant facts, by asking questions and listening, before making decisions and acting on them.

For example, did an employee really do what someone else says he did? Or what was the reason work didn’t get done: lack of motivation or lack of training? Actions of a boss must depend on the answers—answers that they can verify as true, first-hand.

As Rand pointed out, justice applies to managers themselves also: they should only take what they have earned, such as credit only for their own work, and responsibility for their mistakes.

Justice applied to treatment of employees yields win-win outcomes: employees know what to expect and are motivated to be productive. By getting the employees’ input for achieving the organization’s or the department’s goals, the managers can perform their jobs better also.

Applying these three principles (and a few others) helps make managers more effective and their employees productive and committed. These principles are abstract, held in the mind by just three words, yet they make memorizing or googling long lists of ‘practical’ tips unnecessary. Understanding the principles well helps in applying them to any situation by identifying the practical actions the situation requires.

Nothing is more practical than rational philosophy—knowledge integrated into consistent principles. Anyone who wants to be a better boss may want to learn more about how rational moral principles apply in business by reading How to be profitable and moral and its original inspiration: Ayn Rand’s fiction and non-fiction writings.

Photo by Pablo Varela on Unsplash

Originally posted 17 July 2017.

Tips for being a better boss—from philosophy