Why Silence Is Not Enough

Business schools are failing to promote higher morals.

The question of business ethics—or lack thereof—has rarely been more salient than in the past decade or so. From Enron’s 2001 bankruptcy in light of massive accounting fraud to JP Morgan’s 2013 $13 billion settlement over dubious mortgage practices, major corporations have fallen under increased scrutiny. Given that many of the people running these and other enterprises were trained in top business schools, their training grounds would seem a natural place to address the problem. What can business schools do about this? A lot more than they have, I would argue, since many schools have historically been—and to a large extent still are—reluctant to take clear institutional normative stands. MBA programs endow their students with formidable technical and analytical skill sets, yet remain silent about what might be the larger purpose of their students’ pursuits.

I learned this firsthand as a rookie professor in one of the oldest business schools in the country, the Harvard Business School; on one occasion, I did not remain silent. When teaching a case that centered on a production line in a manufacturing plant, I once asked my students what the line manager’s worst fear might be. “A union,” one student retorted. By that, he meant a strike led by the union that would stop the line. I had not yet learned that the school expected silence of me in such circumstances. Instead, I stepped in and reminded my students of the pros of unions, making my bias fairly evident. The discussion proved harder to restart. That day, I also learned a lesson: For a school faculty member, stating one’s normative position was apparently unhelpful. Ethics come in many flavors, and the more the better.

While being relatively silent about one’s opinions might be an awkward posture in this often polarized age, it would have come more naturally to me had I earned an MBA degree at the Harvard Business School. Indeed, I likely would have read during my second year of MBA studies a text titled The Silence of the Sky. It would have taught me that “we look upon the world with questioning eyes that search for meaning, and we are turned back upon our questions with no answers.” I would have learned that “we seek in vain for the value, the virtue, the cause that is ultimate … And still the sky is silent.” The text’s implication was clear: Absolute moral clarity was elusive, if not wholly illusory. Had I been more strongly socialized into the school’s culture, I would have known that my role as instructor was to act out the part of the silent sky.

Archival data suggests that, throughout its history, the Harvard Business School desired—if not engineered—such normative silence on the part of faculty. Even today, the school refrains from defining proper business conduct. For instance, teaching notes (authored by faculty members) that inform the school’s current formal ethics curriculum call for managers’ actions to “be guided and consistent with relevant ethical standards.” Yet they remain silent on the nature of those standards. A similar silence prevails in the hundreds of other notes that provide the backbone of the entire MBA curriculum. An analysis of these notes shows that they rarely allude to broader goals such as creating jobs or growing a nation’s economy. Instead, they merely describe the proper steps that business leaders need to take to reach unspecified goals; they refrain from scripting the end pursuits. The assumption still seems to be that under-specifying morality is the way to go.

What does silence have to do with learning and ethics? A lot, I believe. Almost eight years since joining the school’s faculty, I have learned to appreciate what silence allows and how it can foster classroom debate. Yet when seen in the aggregate, the results are more mixed. The school has now trained, for more than a century, students with wide-ranging results. Many business figures—including a celebrated former New York City Mayor and the often-decried former Enron CEO—have graduated from the school. They obviously were not solely “made” on campus, since they were already shaped adults upon entry. But they all spent two intensive years living in a unique context, where the institutional endorsement of any specific moral viewpoint seemed shunned.

What kind of imprinting might come from such a socialization model? And what does this mean, more broadly, for business education? Answers to these questions lie, in part, in more openly acknowledging who might benefit from such silence. Despite their innovative curricula and cutting-edge research, business schools remain old communities in new clothes. They reflect and uphold the norms of older elites. Silence therefore benefits the established order. By remaining silent on moral goals, business schools make it easier to ignore glaring social inequities. If gaining market share is seen as being as important as creating jobs, flagrant injustices are hard to pinpoint, let alone address.

An educational model built on a silent approach to morality—allowing “all flavors” to coexist—seems to uphold the notions of freedom dear to so many of us, but also ends up de-politicizing the issues of greatest importance to the greatest number. When there is copious evidence that some corporate behaviors are egregiously immoral and millions of people are now facing radically reduced living conditions because of the actions of a select few, silence can no longer be the answer. Silence becomes an excuse not to notice and not to act.

The time has come for business schools to break the cycle of institutional silence. To do so, they need to give priority to the needs of those who have benefited least from the wealth generated by 21st-century business. One important first step toward achieving this goal is to acknowledge that promoting silence amounts to endorsing a normative viewpoint—one that encapsulates the elite’s desire to best handle (or avoid) conflict. That silence, or the under-specification of morality, ends up being the “only” way to go implies a choice made by a select few. Understanding this choice requires unpacking with students the mechanisms that have contributed to naturalize the “moral” narrative in elite business schools and help them identify its main beneficiaries.

As an educator, one of my hopes is to demystify the naturalization of historical construction, or what we take for granted, in everyday life. Unpacking silence contributes to this demystification. Indeed, it is illusory to believe that in silence all flavors of ethics can coexist under the sun. Those at the raw end of business dealings can attest to this. Some forms of ethics only benefit those already in power, and can destroy others’ security and hope. It’s time to recognize these limits of silence and hope that future corporate leaders graduating from business schools remember them.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • Amanda P's avatar

    BY Amanda P

    ON January 22, 2014 11:39 AM

    Thanks for this post, Michael. Without ethics & values, why shouldn’t leaders try to maximize profits at all costs? White collar crime is also often not taken seriously. I’m proud many companies have robust CSR programs and ethical leaders—Publix is a great example—or at least are trying to be part of the solution, focusing on the win for communities and people, not just a win for the company. True sustainability in business comes when people & communities prosper too—people need to be financially stable and have good jobs to buy goods & services from companies, people need schools to be an educated workforce, we need our communities to be safe so companies & their workers & stores are also safe, and on it goes. Hope ethics come up in WEF/Davos this week a lot as well.

  • JerryDavis's avatar

    BY JerryDavis

    ON January 22, 2014 06:41 PM

    Thanks to Professor Anteby for providing an insider view of the HBS classroom experience and its consequences.  The case study pedagogy pioneered by HBS is widely used in medicine, yet the contrast between the two settings is instructive.  First, the goal of promoting the health of patients is not especially controversial, and so a focus on how to do it is warranted.  But what is the business analogue of health?  In most business schools such as HBS, it is “creating shareholder value.”  This is the assumption that fills the silence described by Professor Anteby.  It preempts those tiresome discussions about the purpose of the corporation, allowing us to skip the *why* and get down to the *how*, however unsavory the company’s products.  (How many other schools can boast that their faculty members are recruited away to run gambling companies, using the latest behavioral methods to encourage frequent repeat visits?)

    Second, in business (but rarely in medicine) what is sensible for the individual may be disastrous for the collective.  Consider a case study of a sheep farmer whose herd grazes on common land along with other herds.  I am highly confident that the guidance to emerge from an HBS class discussion would result in tragedy.  This is the solipsism of the case method in business schools.

  • LaurenJanus's avatar

    BY LaurenJanus,

    ON January 23, 2014 02:18 AM

    Thank you for your post and your efforts to change the conversations in the business school classroom. I recently completed my MBA, and as one of the very few students with an nonprofit background, I often found myself defending everything from environmental regulation to the unemployed. I could have used a couple of allies, both in the form of professors and other students with similar backgrounds.

  • Al Davis's avatar

    BY Al Davis

    ON January 23, 2014 01:07 PM

    There was a time when such sacrilegious presentations were tolerated at the Stanford GSB. 
    They were personified in the lectures by Prof. Ted Kreps which upset a lot of our more traditionally business-oriented students.  Prof. Kreps often presented from the standpoint of societal economics and, as such, generated some pretty hot arguments, but also some clearer thinking on our parts.  I have little doubt about what he would have said about ‘trickle-down’ ‘theory’ (if you can call it that). 

    Are there no Prof. Kreps’s in the GSB anymore?

  • Randy Due's avatar

    BY Randy Due

    ON January 23, 2014 01:22 PM

    I totally agree!  It;‘s time business schools around the country focus on the morals of doing business.  With moral business leaders, I believe increased business, sales, etc. will be the result.

    Silence about morals at business schools should no longer be the norm.

    Great article!

  • Like Ljanus, I was the only person in my B-school class with a nonprofit/human resources background. It was amazing that only one or two of us ever asked how decisions might impact “the people”. I also asked questions about impact on families and work/life balance which generally met with silence. I wondered why we didn’t have classes on ethics and very few classes that addressed issues of managing people. We learned finance and economics, but almost nothing about working with the people who do the work in every organization in the world.

  • BY Mary C. Gentile, PhD

    ON January 24, 2014 07:14 AM

    The fact that silence oftens speaks louder than words in business education, as Michel Anteby gracefully describes here, is a very powerful and apt observation. However, silence is often a more comfortable response to values conflicts than voice. In fact, these observations, both at Harvard Business School and many other business schools and companies, were two of the key drivers behind the development of an innovative approach to business ethics education and values-driven leadership development called “Giving Voice To Values.” (GVV).
    Too often, we approach ethics education as if it is entirely a matter of intellectual debate – a detailed analysis and parsing of positions in an effort to discern the “right thing” to do. And of course, often this sort of analysis is critically necessary as many values conflicts are, in fact, quite subtle. Nevertheless, there are in fact many issues where most of us – not everyone – but most of us would agree that a particular behavior is over the line. These are the offenses that make it onto the front pages of the business press and that contribute to a dangerous erosion of trust in business and business managers.
    For these reasons, it becomes necessary and important to go beyond ethics education as an intellectual debate and approach it as a training ground for values-driven Action. The “Giving Voice To Values” pedagogy is just such an approach. Instead of asking first, foremost and only, “what is the right thing to do?”, GVV asks “Once I know what I believe is right, how can I get it done? What information do I need? What can I say? To whom? In what sequence? And what will the objections be, and then how can I respond to those?”
    Based on research that suggests that “rehearsal” or practice is an effective way to impact behavior, GVV provides opportunities to literally pre-script and action plan for values-driven leadership; to share strategies; and to engage in peer coaching to enhance them.

    Thus, if we agree with Michel Anteby that “silence” is not a sufficient response to ethical challenges in business, then we need to develop a sophisticated and impactful way to give “voice”.  Hundreds of business schools and companies on all seven continents have chosen the “Giving Voice To Values” pedagogy as just such a methodology. (; )

  • Susan Liautaud's avatar

    BY Susan Liautaud

    ON January 25, 2014 10:51 AM

    Such an insightful piece! Thank you for the reminder of the insidious risk of silence. I also like the emphasis on beneficiaries of ethics, although I would phrase it more broadly as stakeholders – those who contribute to, and are affected by, ethics in the short-, medium-, and long-term. However, I see the institution’s role as protecting academic freedom, leaving faculty responsible for ethics curriculum and independent engagement in society. I also worry about the conflation of ethics with CSR, which is neither intrinsically ethical nor an eraser of unethical behavior elsewhere in an organization. Ditto for non-profit status. Conversely, “ethical profits” is not necessarily an oxymoron. Finally, I struggle with moral absolutes in a world in which so many ethics challenges involve right and wrong and defensible ethical positions (and even human life at stake) on both sides of the decisions. Does an oil company jeopardize the safety of its expatriate employees in a conflict-ridden country by staying or the safety and livelihood of the local employees by leaving? Similarly, absolutes can run roughshod over complexities such as the vast non-bank network of participants in the sub-prime catastrophe, the differences between unions in Malaysia and Massachusetts, or the risk that zero tolerance translates to zero due process. I agree that “many flavors” may not be the best ethics teaching. But my own view is that ethics teaching should withstand the imperfect, evolving, culturally influenced, and resource-strained real world.
    Susan Liautaud Visiting Scholar, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society

  • Ramakrishna Velamuri's avatar

    BY Ramakrishna Velamuri

    ON January 27, 2014 09:12 PM

    Prof. Anteby raises an important issue about case-based management education. Should the facilitator focus on the process of ethical reasoning, or should s/he bring in her/his own normative values into the discussion?

    I have been educated at case schools (IESE and Darden) and am totally committed to the case method. I support the view of the professor-as-discussion-facilitator rather than as teacher in the traditional sense. However, just as finance professors would not hesitate to point out obvious mistakes in calculation or analysis on the part of students, there is no reason for an ethics professor to remain silent if a student says something that goes fundamentally against universal ethical principles (although I am aware that defining these universal ethical principles can be quite challenging).

    The example of the union that Prof. Anteby mentions may not fall into the category of statements that fundamentally violate universal ethical principles. Free market economists might say that unions distort the market and end up imposing a cost on workers as a whole because fewer workers will get hired than would otherwise be the case (personally, I do not share this view). The issue then becomes an empirical one - can those in favor of unions provide conclusive evidence that they are socially beneficial? Can those who are anti-union provide evidence that the net societal costs are higher with unions? The truth of the matter is that both sides can come up with evidence to support their arguments, and the debate then becomes one of the model of society you are in favor of. Do you favor strong worker rights, including strong unions, which might lead to greater social stability at the expense of growth and innovation as you see in Western Europe, or are you more inclined to support higher growth and innovation with more precarious worker rights, including employment at will, as is the case in the US?

    In summary, I agree with Prof. Anteby that it is important for a case discussion facilitator not to refrain from taking a normative position when the situation demands it. However, this option of voice should be used only in exceptional circumstances.

  • Anita McGahan's avatar

    BY Anita McGahan

    ON January 31, 2014 08:23 AM

    Thanks so much, Michel, for your wonderful book and post on ethical issues in business-school classrooms.  I agree fully that the silence of instructors constitutes a moral stance (I’d argue that this is true as well of students and businesspeople).  The challenge for me as a case teacher is in how to engage these issues fruitfully in the classroom.  I’m always grateful for frameworks, theories, and evidence that support constructive discussions on issues such as unionization.  How can we parse, construct, and deconstruct the conversation to advance student learning?  It’s difficult to cultivate listening and understanding given the diversity of views of our students—not to mention our faculties.  Like you, I’ve been an advocate of teaching ethics by teaching history so as to turn the students’ focus toward the consequences of silence and, generally, of failure to act on moral claims in business.  Thanks again for elevating the discussion on this.

  • Prof. Anteby, I recently completed a joint MBA/MA program in the nation’s capitol and therefore will look at this article from a student’s view.  What was unfortunate in my school’s context was the limited structure established to allow for students to engage in dialog - this to me, was the guiding act of the administration and faculty which exposed us to ‘silence’ during class.  I’m not referring to no one speaking or asking a question here and there; I’m talking about a very didactic engagement between a single professor and a single student when in fact 30 or 40 other students were in the room.  The authority to speak among each other as peers was never bestowed on us - in other words, students knew how to tear down arguments or ‘discuss’ (from the root of percussion and concussion - meaning to drop ideas on top of one another) them but they could not explore, enrich, further, develop, or carry on dialog that added greater value to us as a class - to further the conversation. 

    I believe a ‘communication structure’ needs to be established for every class, and at the same time, the administration of MBA programs needs to better coordinate faculty (I’ve heard its like herding cats) so they can form facilitation committees whereby these committees aim to better inspire, allow, encourage, and help students to learn, reflect, and grow.  I’ve never been a fan of the case method of learning - its too micro of a view for real world understanding and leads us towards poor understanding of the real issues - however, a good professor should establish (and continue to promote) a structure to communicate within.  Its that ‘safety’ that I believe offers a window into each students ability to express for themselves what they believe is true - and if their words are taken at face value, they can better learn from others the diversity the real world offers.

    I’ll second Giving Voice to Values as a method for driving this idea home.  The Oath Project is also doing similar good work in trying to better engage business school students.  If there is one anecdote that stands out from my experience, is the very act of engaging in conversation is a potentially traumatic one for b-school students: it challenges them to think outside their comfort zones, something I think is difficult for students who are attracted to business (and possibly even more sadly, because the primary goal is to ‘get by’ for a degree they purchased, less so to learn, understand, and be challenged by new ideas and thought).

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.

Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

By Paul Tough

Building on his previous work about the importance of personal traits such as perseverance in student success, Paul Tough focuses Helping Children Succeed on how educators, policymakers, and parents can help children develop those attributes.