Ethics and MBA: A study on the values of students in Management

Co-written by Hans Schlierer, Professor of International Negotiation Skills and Techniques

knowledge @emlyon
Jun 4, 2020 · 5 min read
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For the past twenty years now, business schools have been in the dock every time the drifts of our economic system were pointed out. The 2008 financial crisis emphasized even more this critic, and its most vocal representatives were demanding no less than to wipe out business schools off the map worldwide.

In the face of such critic, business schools started questioning their mission and their responsibility. Some professors pleaded for an introduction of a critical approach of management based on ethical values. The flagship program of business schools, the MBA (Master of Business Administration), was more specifically and fundamentally called into question, and classes in business ethics or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) were added.

If one employee out of five is said to be pressured to act against his/her own ethics according to a study carried out by the Institute of Business Ethics, Simone de Colle shows that multiplying programs in this line in companies, is useless. Instead, they should be built on a new basis. In order to achieve this transformation, how about we studied participants’ expectations?

Ethical dilemmas

Instead of focusing only on ethics and CSR teaching in business schools, let’s take a look at the behaviors and expectations of students starting an MBA. Our research, conducted for the past 4 years within the MBA program of emlyon business school, and previously, within the Grande Ecole programs of Grenoble Ecole de Management and INSEEC Alpes-Savoie, is built on the students’ values at the beginning of their program. And rather than explicitly ask students what are their values, they were subjected to a series of ethical dilemmas using the web tool Ethimak.

The theoretical model used is that of Shalom Schwartz’s Universal Values. Based on the postulate that deep down inside, we all have fundamental values corresponding to as many essential needs, necessary to our fulfillment and balance.

These values are both universal and personal:

  • Universal, because they are acquired within a culture, or via culture transfers. They constitute a set of common standards governing our behaviors, and are at the origins of laws and conventions running a given society (for such issues, you can refer to the texts of Tocqueville, Weber, Durkheim).
  • Personal, because our values are convictions which constitute our essential landmarks to make our most crucial choices and to determine our behaviors.

They form the basis of our personality and the drive to act and undertake. Our approach is in line with the work of Mary Gentile, Giving Voice to Values.

A security request

In 2005, Henry Mintzberg struck a blow against MBAs in his book Managers Not MBAs. He openly declared that “the MBA trains the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences”. Our analysis of the dilemma responses of the students from either Grenoble, Chambéry or Lyon, shows surprising results in contrast with this image of future cannibals in suits and tie.

For three consecutive years, the dilemma responses of the students from INSEEC Alpes-Savoie systematically highlighted the duo “tradition-compliance” as a dominating value, although tests were carried out on three different cohorts of students (each made of 70 students on average).

At emlyon, where we carried out tests from 2014 to 2019 on Master students (about 400 students were questioned yearly) and on MBA students (the entire cohort), the security value is the one which systematically prevails. These results show that no generalization can be made, and that business schools cannot be lumped together in one pot.

Obviously, each business school attracts specific profiles and plays a different role as an agent of socialization. A general critic alike that of Mintzberg does not make much sense.

Regarding the MBA participants, the dominating value of “security” is also counterintuitive in comparison with the image these programs usually drag along.

The second result, no less surprising, ranks the power value systematically in final position. Again, the collected responses are in contradiction with the oversimplified image of MBA programs filled with upstarts.

A global consensus?

The third result of our study: no difference between countries of origins was evidenced. Regardless of their origins, students seem to be more influenced by their experience in companies than by their national culture. Another interpretation would be that the selection process of business schools creates a bias by recruiting students with similar values. Curious readers may refer to a dynamic view for further data on this study.

The impact of the cultures of big corporations business school students tend to go to, may explain such result. These multinationals are often focused on procedure compliance and security issues. Especially since MBA students are strongly marked by their first professional experience, often carried out in a big corporation. This prevalence for the security value can also be explained by students feeling anxious as tracks are less and less secured. After school, careers are increasingly uncertain.

In conclusion, business schools as institutions, remain under the pressure of their environment on subjects such as CSR and ethics. But the real challenge, the real transformation, will come and is already coming, from the students. Without being fully aware of it, this generation of students between 20 and 30 years old, is looking for purpose, perspectives for a future which no longer rimes with hierarchical careers leading to fabulous wages. A few classes on ethics and CSR sprinkled here and there no longer correspond to their values.

It is high time that business schools question and adjust their teachings to meet participants’ expectations in order not to allow any Henry Mintzberg to note that: “The MBA trains the right people but in the wrong way!”.

This article was written with the precious collaboration of Damien Richard, teacher-researcher in management, business ethics and environmental and societal corporate responsibility at INSEEC, and with that of Geoffroy Murat, researcher attached to the CREGO of the Université de Bourgogne, and the research chair in health management at work of Grenoble.

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article in french.

Hans-Jörg Schlierer teaches mainly international negotiation skills and techniques in various programs at EM Lyon including Specialized Master Programs, IMBA and ExMBA. His research interests are focused on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of companies, and especially the communication of CSR topics. Using qualitative research methods, Hans-Jörg analyzes annual reports, CSR reports and all kind of supports which are used by companies to communicate on their social and environmental impact.

More informations about Hans Schlierer:

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