Clever as Serpents: Business Ethics and Office Politics.

Clever as Serpents: Business Ethics and Office Politics. – book reviews

George Kilcourse

Jim Grote and John McGeeney, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1997. 149pp. $11.95 (paper).

Ever since the evangelist Matthew portrayed Jesus driving merchants from the Temple in Jerusalem, there has been an element of friction between business and Christianity. Only in recent decades have the churches begun to articulate a religiously grounded business ethic. Now Jim Grote, from the Office of Stewardship and Development in the Archdiocese of Louisville, and John McGeeney, formerly a corporate attorney now in private practice, contribute to the conversation. They offer a provocative new strategy in response to the question, “How can you interact shrewdly with other people and current market conditions while staying true to your values?”

In this practical, entertaining, and readable book they shift the focus from macroeconomics and abstract notions of utility, equity, and liberty to the immediate ethical issue of “self-interest.” Grote and McGeeney take their cue from Scott Adams, creator of cartoon character Dilbert, who demonstrates how people routinely and passionately behave irrationally in attempts to define and pursue “self-interest.” They cite “buyer’s remorse” as evidence of Dilbert’s axiom: “people are idiots!” Clever as Serpents instead proposes that our success depends on our ability to expect irrational behavior from other people. If we do so, much of the tension in our lives can dissipate and we will be happier. But the antidote involves an intentional discipline or asceticism on our part to avoid the none-too-subtle violence in office politics: the blame game, gossip, the boss, and the mob syndrome. In their terminology, business ethics must seek to liberate the “productive self” from the “competitive self,” which gets caught in the maelstrom of office misconduct. They prescribe ethical techniques for redefining survival, success, and service in the marketplace. In brief, they propose that today’s office environment “holds as much opportunity for spiritual and ethical development as the monastery.”

The authors acknowledge the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and the resulting Protestant Work Ethic that dominate much business ethics discourse. They point out, however, that “both office politics and financial markets often bear more resemblance to primitive, tribal behavior than to the sanitized Protestant work ethic.” Three working hypotheses inform their analysis of the modern marketplace: (1) the economic phenomenon of competition resembles the religious phenomena of idolatry; (2) the behavior of both financial markets and office politics resembles primitive sacrificial rites; and (3) both of these phenomena are related to “the Management Complex.”

Chapters 2 through 5 examine the “myths” of the free market and of competition compromised by benchmarking and replaced by a conformity that mimics religious idolatry. In the fourth chapter they reveal their debt to Rene Girard and his analysis of mimetic desire. Girard theorizes that the source of violence in culture is the phenomenon of making another person’s object of desire into one’s own personal property. Grote and McGeeney illustrate how advertising effectively applies such a principle of “borrowed desire.” “The heart of capitalism is not materialism,” the authors contend, “but borrowed desire – competition for competition’s sake.” Chapter 5 explores the pathology of blame and conflict resolution giving rise to the sacrificial injustice of scapegoating which appeases and engages in violence without risk of reprisal. The authors cite Girard’s theory, which points to Christ’s message and that of the Hebrew prophets as demythologizing, not legitimizing, the sacrificial structure found in human cultures.

The second part of Clever as Serpents, chapters 6 through 9, proposes practical techniques for dealing with “the jungle of office politics.” For readers who may find the first half of this book too theoretical, the concrete diagnosis and applications here rivet attention to the office pathologies of passing the buck, the gossip triangle, and mob behavior. The final three chapters on reconceptualizing survival, success, and service – and appropriate strategies – could easily be read and discussed as part of a corporate or business retreat. Discussion questions for each chapter make this book useful for college classrooms.

In the final chapter Grote and McGeeney acknowledge their Catholic faith tradition and nod toward its formidable social teaching. Their brief discussion of the American Catholic Bishops pastoral letter, Economic Justice For All, leaves much to be desired, however. Likewise, when Grote and McGeeney point out how the Catholic monastic tradition deals with work as a form of healing or therapy for the healthy community, their sweeping generalization begs for critical analysis and more historical detail. One is teased with these references and looks forward to the authors’ continuing to develop religious resources into further enlightening insights on business ethics.


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