Developing moral sensibility using works of literature: Shakespeare´s Othello – a case for teaching business ethics?
Most business schools, in particular when teaching management courses use case studies presenting students with a problematic situation in business requiring a decision. The primary pedagogical goal of this type of exercise with cases is to develop three main skills:
One, to teach the importance of rendering an accurate account of the case, separating facts from assumptions or hasty conclusions. The second is to ‘imagine’ and weigh different managerial options available, and the third is to apply rational analytical tools and skills for decision making. The underlying rationale seems to be that it is enough to assess real life situations by using “technical knowledge” or theories. Emotional sensitivity must be avoided. For that reason, case studies or business narratives are often void of character descriptions, but richer on listing facts and data. The business context is mostly only briefly described.
On the other hand, we know that people must use more aspects of their intelligence than the mere application of tools and models. The more decentralized organizations become, the greater are the demands on an individual’s total competence, including moral sensitivity. Individuals need to understand how they impact and are impacted by others. They must be aware of contextual factors which weigh heavily onpersonal responsibility and accountability. Ethos is at stake. Unfortunately, ethos is not something that can be taught in an evening course; it is the result of a person’s character formation, a process shaped during student years and work experience. Social intelligence, emotional intelligence and moral competence are equally important and cannot be developed overnight (von Weltzien Hoivik, 2009).
It is our firm belief, based on many years of teaching with cases, that business is a deeply human activity. It is about relationships among people; it is about ambition, power, love and hate. Why do we ignore this? Why then have we not made more use of the richness of the humanities such as literature, theater and the arts at a business school? Researchers have over times raised this question and offered learning from valuable experiments. (Freeman et al. 2015, de Colle et al. 2015, von Weltzien Hoivik 2005, von Weltzien Hoivik 2009)
Literary works, in particular drama, lend themselves extremely well to the cultivation of emphatic imagination. Rational arguments without imagination are blind and too limiting. Imagination here means the ability to envisage another person’s life and to view circumstances from a holistic perspective. For business students who are tomorrow´s managers or management consultants, this ability is of utmost importance. They need to develop deep personal skills by learning how to understandand wrestle with complex situations. Some of these skills have to be developed, cultivated, nourished, because they are not “technical”, but are linked to sensitivity, emotions, courage and even a personal willingness to be affected.
When teaching an executive course about ethical and moral issues linked to leadership, consultancy or about real dilemmas in making the world a better place without sacrificing the environment or human rights for example, a much deeper understanding of the value of relationship among actors is needed. To raise students´ awareness of the inter-dependency of self with others and society, we need to use as “cases” engaging narratives with complex characters in situations where meaning is “constructed” by individuals even leading to actions which can be harmful. Since we rarely can find these in the normal business cases, we have chosen to turn to literature.
Due to the restricted length of this article, allow me to relate only briefly here how using Shakespeare´s tragedy Othello can be used as a ´case´ where students can unravel different layers of reality or truth which are displayed by various characters. Instead of reading the play, we resorted to using the film version, directed by Kenneth Branagh who also played the role of Iago.
Our discussion of Shakespeare´s Othello with a group of executive management students yielded a plethora of insights into how people in different relationships, be it as employer or employee, as manager or consultant, can use and misuse information and “truth” in order to achieve a personal gain. Often it is not so much what is being said, but how, where and when. Communicative skills are used to distort or subdue truth for other purposes.
Using a Shakespeare play as a “case” for discussion, also opened a range of new emotional experiences for the students. They found it difficult to apply rational arguments, defending either Iago or Othello, or even assessing or judging their behavior. When it came to searching for the reasons behind their actions, rational arguments were hard to come by. Instead, students uncovered the many layers of underlying assumptions, prejudices and emotions, like hate and envy, resentment and use of power. These remained unspoken of yet dominated the course of events leading eventually to a tragic outcome.
Viewing Iago’s “strategic behavior” and comparing it to what can be observed in the business world,students pointed out that corporate management surround themselves with people who are likely to agree with them most of the time. They do not see that some “confidents” or “consultants” in reality often are not serving them but rather pursuing their own goals. Managers can fall victim to such confidents who interpret or construct reality for them in a way that can be far from the truth. Others can exert power over manager by exclusively presenting the superior strength of a certain technical knowledge and expertise, regardless of whether it is suitable for the organization or not. In particular consultants – both internal and external to a company – can even ‘obtain evidence’ from other parts of the organization and then use this as ‘proof’ to manipulate decision making. In the play Iago steals Desdemona´s handkerchief to prove her infidelity.
In short, it is my experience from using Shakespeare´s drama when teaching leadership and ethics to executive management students, one succeeds in doing more than teaching decision making skills using moral theories. Moral dilemmas need to be seen in a wider context and studied using bothaffections and reasoning in class discussions.
The habitual study of works of literature is one chief part of a well-grounded education. A taste for liberal arts, the treasures of the humanities, is necessary to complete the character or moral development of any person, and business students should no longer be deprived of this chance. A course dealing with ethical dilemmas in a non-business setting is a unique opportunity, even at a business school.
- Colle , Simone de , et al. (2015) Practicing Human Dignity: Ethical Lessons from Commedia dell’Arte and Theater.Journal of Business Ethics, DOI 10.1007/s10551-015-2898-4
- Freemam, R.Edward et al.(2015) Leveraging the Creative Arts in Business Ethics Teaching,Journal of Business Ethics. DOI 101007/s10551-014-2479-y
- von Weltzien Hoivik, Heidi (2005)Consultants as destructive confidants and the unethical ‘games that people play’in:Scandinavian Perspectives on Management Consulting (eds Bjartveit et al), Oslo: Cappelen Akademisk Forlag, chpt 9, p229-253.
- von Weltzien Hoivik, Heidi (2009)Developing students’ competencefor ethical reflection while attending Business School, Journal of Business Ethics (88) 5–9 .
Heidi von Weltzien Hoivik was professor emeritus, ethics and leadership at Norwegian Business School. She may be contacted at email@example.com