Unspoken Cues: Encouraging Morals Without Mandates

Harvard Business School professor Michel Anteby studied his own employer to better understand how organizations can create moral behavior using unspoken cues.
by Sean Silverthorne

Many institutions promote and even mandate moral behavior and values among their members, but how they do it differs greatly. Some organizations such as religious groups may proscribe very specifically what is acceptable behavior—think the Ten Commandments. But others would rather create an environment where moral behavior is instilled as proper behavior rather than imposed.

How moral orders are built and sustained in organizations is of particular fascination to Harvard Business School Associate Professor Michel Anteby. His latest book tackles the subject in an unusual way: by studying the inner workings of his own employer.

“Vocal silence allows organizations to instill rather than impose morals”

Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education chronicles Anteby's journey as a junior faculty member and observes how the School socializes teachers through an approach he terms "vocal silence." Insights from the research might help leaders instill values or morals in their own organizations.


Sean Silverthorne: What is vocal silence?

Michel Anteby: Vocal silence allows organizations to instill rather than impose morals. Indeed, the absence of direct guidance from higher authorities does not equate with the absence of any guidance. In vocal silence, an organizational member is left "alone" to make decisions, yet also hears whispers of a more distant collective guidance.

In the initial draft of my ethnography of HBS, I noted the School's relative silence on the moral contents of faculty's teaching. New faculty members receive at the School a lot of guidance on how to teach, but relatively less on what to teach—including what moral stand (if any) to promote. As I shared my draft with colleagues in and out of the School, many noted that my descriptions of daily activities did include, however, many unspoken cues on how to behave. That's how I arrived at the concept of vocal silence.

Silence requires significant decision making on the part of those involved, with little direct guidance from higher authorities. Silence becomes vocal when embedded in a context rich with many indirect signs on how to behave. For instance, an organization that calls for border guards to screen incoming travelers for security risks, without higher authorities specifying what such a risk might entail, is de facto silent. More generally, whenever an employer calls for a member to pass a judgment without specifying how to do so, silence prevails. But if this silence is embedded in a context where indirect signs suggest a course of action—in boarder guards' example, signs of who might be a security threat—then the silence becomes vocal.

Let's return to HBS's context. Most teaching notes (used by faculty members to prepare their class sessions in the first-year required MBA curriculum) refrain, for instance, from taking any given moral standpoint. The notes do emphasize, however, that case protagonists can end up being losers or winners in a challenging mêlée. In fact, many notes point out that the situation in question can result in either failure or success, underscoring that the outcome is not predetermined. The belief that business life entails personal choices is a "vocal" element in the School's context.

Q: Can morals be manufactured, as the title of the book suggests?

A: The term "manufacturing" evokes the notion of producing something on a large scale. Anyone setting foot for the first time on the HBS campus is struck by its size. When walking to my office, visitors looking for the "main HBS campus" often stop me. They assume the School must be located in only one or two buildings. I explain that most buildings around them belong to HBS. Given our campus' size as well as the number of students in our entering MBA cohort (900 or more), it's hard to deny that something on a large scale is being attempted.

By contrast, the term "morals" evokes what many people imagine as an individual decision or the outcome of one's solitary pondering on what's right or wrong. (An increasing interest in behavioral approaches to morality in US social sciences underlines such an individual view of morality.) In my mind, the counter-intuitive pairing of terms evoking individuality and scale captures the essence of vocal silence. Vocal silence aims to produce an outcome that remains within an acceptable range while anchoring its genesis in varied individual experiences; put otherwise, vocal silence tries to combine scale and individuality.

“It's crucial for us to gain an understanding of how morals emerge.”

Q: Many organizations perpetuate socialization dynamics, but you state that "few organizations aim to produce a shared perspective or set of morals as deliberately and consistently as the one presented here. And few have been doing so for as long, close to a century." So why has HBS been so successful at this?

A: Great question! But let me first clarify, my work does not assess the success or failure of the socialization model described in Manufacturing Morals. I consider myself a process researcher, namely a scholar examining the ways in which human systems operate to provide insights on "how" things get done. Whether the HBS model proves successful at achieving its goal is for others to decide. That said, I hope my book will open our model to broader scrutiny and jump-start that conversation.

A few conditions are nonetheless needed for vocal silence to prove successful. One key condition entails paying a lot of attention to the human input into the system since so much moral decision-making is repeatedly delegated to individuals. The screening and hiring procedures need therefore be quite robust to ensure continuity.

In addition, a lot of emphasis needs to be paid to the fine-tuning of freedom and constraint. Silence can be experienced by different people as liberating or debilitating—that is, as freedom from unhelpful constraints or as a source of confusion and even paralysis. Adding enough vocal elements to silence (reassuring those who find it debilitating) without adding too many elements (possibly putting off those who find it liberating) is a tricky balance to achieve. Success therefore depends in part on constantly fine-tuning the mix between silence and signs to produce an optimal environment for given morals to endure.

Q: Although Harvard authorized and paid for your research, it must have seemed odd to study the socialization processes of faculty while at the same time being a faculty member caught up in the socialization process. How did you separate or integrate the two experiences?

A: Historically, many seminal research pieces on work and organizations have relied on insiders' accounts, meaning that they were written by people paid by their employers to work in these "field" sites. For instance, Melvin Dalton's seminal piece on managers' roles, titled Men Who Manage: Fusions of Feeling and Theory in Administration (1959), was largely informed by his own employment experience. Moreover, we should not forget that one of the coauthors of the famous Hawthorne Studies (Harold Wright) was also chief of personnel at the Western Electric Company when Management and the Worker: An Account of a Research Program Conducted by the Western Electric Company (1947) was published. So what some might consider odd today proved less so in the past. I would argue that such intimacy (here in the form of a paid relation between scholars and their fields) creates many opportunities for better understanding a given phenomenon.

You are right, however, to note that such field intimacy also creates unique challenges. I tried to handle these in several ways. I first handled it by writing up my ethnographic field notes (that inform this book) as close to the time of the events described, but off-campus whenever possible. Indeed, I found it sometimes hard to fully buffer myself on-site from what was happening around me, and only focus on my note writing.

In addition, I handled my field intimacy by discussing my data analyses with two senior colleagues throughout the writing of this project. One colleague was very familiar with the setting (having spent all his working life at the School) and another one less so (having never been at the School). These discussions help me build distance. But only the combination of distance and involvement allows, in my mind, for deep dives into human systems.

Q: What can leaders or managers learn by reading "Manufacturing Morals"?

A: I hope the book will be read on multiple levels. First, any leaders or managers thinking about how to instill "values" or "morals" in his or her organization will probably learn a lot about possible ways to do so. Morals are shared understandings in which humans' highest aspirations and dreams come to fulfillment, and the underpinnings of many, if not all, collective human pursuits. Whether in everyday settings or at critical life junctures, morals guide and justify thought and action in all arenas of social life. It's therefore crucial for us to gain an understanding of how morals emerge. By offering an in-depth read of a given context, my hope is to help readers think through the hopes and limits of the described model, but also alternative ones.

Second, the book might prove helpful to anyone wanting to gain a perspective—from the vantage point of a "junior" member—on how HBS operates. Whether readers are interested in how faculty members grade students' class participation or how teaching sessions are prepared, the book captures and analyzes many apparently mundane tasks being performed.

But beyond that, Manufacturing Morals offers a systemic view of how all these tasks fit together. The reason why mostly white flowers get planted on campus or an eleventh student section gets created (beyond the standard 10 sections first-year MBA students are divided into) might seem like anecdotal points, but they all coalesce in creating a setting in which vocal silence can flourish.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In three of my past research projects, I encountered various forms of field resistance and am trying to further analyze their meanings and implications. When studying the manufacture of personal artifacts on company time and with company materials, a few of the aeronautics plant retirees I interviewed were worried that I wanted to denounce them to management. In my project on the commerce in human cadavers for medical education and research, some clinical anatomists expressed reserve on my attending their meetings and conferences. And finally, with Manufacturing Morals, some School members (including yourself) raised the question of the oddness of studying one's own setting. I am hoping to draw comparisons and parallels between these fields to understand more broadly how resistance operates and what can be learned from it.

    • Edward Stern
    • Independent Researcher on Workplace Violence and Bullying, OSHA, ret.
    This article begins with the following note: "Harvard Business School professor Michel Anteby studied his own employer to better understand how organizations can create moral behavior using unspoken cues."

    Later, the interviewer asks: "So why has HBS been so successful at this?" Coming from HBS, this is a self-serving question. Further, the article does not demonstrate that HBS has been successful at instilling moral behavior. Professor Anteby says: "Great question." But then implies that he has no evidence for such success. That should be the topic for the professor's next study--perhaps, he should have started with that first.

    But what about the cues that Anteby says the School uses to instill morality? Some examples of the cues used at HBS (not at the airport) should have been in the article.

    Consequently, the article speaks of an idea that might be good, but without details and without evidence of usefulness.