Aristotle’s Advice for Business Success

By Jennifer Koch

Oct. 1, 1998

Tom Morris is a modern-day business philosopher. A former professor of philosophy at Notre Dame for 15 years, Morris is now Chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values in Wilmington, North Carolina, and author of “If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business,” which was just published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, last month. Here, in an exclusive interview, Morris discusses such time-tested ideas as truth, beauty, goodness and unity, and why HR professionals, and the workforces they serve, can benefit by tapping the wisdom of the ages.

Q: Although the ideas in your book also come from the teachings of other ancient philosophers from Greece, Rome and China, why do you focus on Aristotle?
A: Well, I started off surveying all the ancient thinkers and all the great philosophers throughout the centuries looking for the most powerful wisdom I could find to apply to modern-day business. Over and over again, I kept coming back to Aristotle, the person who had the most powerful perspective on any given issue. For example, what really motivates human beings? Many of the great thinkers had a lot of insightful things to say, but it was always Aristotle who seemed to really hit the nail on the head. Then, when I was thinking about what really holds an organization together and how people in an organization should view what they’re doing together, it was Aristotle, again, who had the key that unlocked the door to all kinds of powerful insights. Aristotle gives us the way to make the next step forward in our understanding of organizations, of motivation, and those kinds of things.

Q: What was the practical advice Aristotle proposed in his day that applies to us now in business?
A: Aristotle helps us understand human motivation: that human beings are searching for happiness in everything they doin their private lives, in their family lives and in their work lives. Aristotle helps us understand, at a deeper level, what that’s all about. If business managers can understand what motivates people, they can understand the leverage points in their workers’ personalities for helping them attain the highest levels of excellence along with the greatest levels of satisfaction. Too often in modern work, those two things come apart. People are being driven to higher levels of excellence, but it’s being attained at the expense of their satisfaction. They feel nothing but stress and pressure. They’re disgruntled. Aristotle helps us, as business people, understand human nature so we can see how to build higher levels of excellence on a foundation of happiness and satisfaction, so people feel good about what they’re doing in the long run and, thereby, can sustain the kind of excellence businesses hope to achieve.

Q: In your book, your first point is truth. How does truth fit into the business picture?
A: We’re hearing a lot nowadays about businesses being “information societies” and “learning organizations.” People appreciate the importance of ideas. But so many organizations are almost desert landscapes when it comes to people telling each other the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Because of organizational politics, people fear open candor about the problems they’re facing and what really needs to be done. But human beings need truth just like they need air, water and food. It’s that important. I give lots of examples in the book about how truthfulness, truth-telling in the right way, always strengthens an organization. I show places where it has worked beautifully and try to show how to avoid misusing truth-telling because sometimes it can be a harmful exercise if people are uttering brutal truths in an uncaring and unfeeling way. So I help people understand the importance of truth in organizations and how they can inject more truth into the workplace.

Q: Do you think modern businesses have been withholding truth?
A: Yes, I do. And it’s based on a misunderstanding of a famous insight from philosopher Francis Bacon centuries ago. Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” And a lot of people in modern business concluded from that, “If you want power, hoard knowledge.” They think that if you give away knowledge, you give away power. They don’t understand there are some things in human life (like love and knowledge) that when they’re shared, they’re actually multiplied: To share truth in the right way multiplies truth and strengthens the organization as a result. In the book, I show how that works.

Q: How does Aristotle’s second point, beauty, fit into the business arena?
A: Beauty is seen in the workplace on many different levels: cleaning up a factory, repainting a facility, beautifying a place where people work. Hospitals discovered a long time ago that if you hang beautiful paintings in recovery rooms and if you paint the walls a nicer color, people physically recover from surgery faster. The same thing holds true in the workplace. If people have more pleasant surroundings to work in they’re going to feel better about their workplace; they’re going to enjoy being there, and they’ll work at higher levels. So I talk about that sort of beauty at work. But I also talk about other levels of beauty: performance beauty, for example, delighting a customer, delighting an associate, empowering people to create beautiful solutions to business problems. Nobody wants to feel like a robot. People essentially are creative beings. HR professionals need to turn people loose to be artists, to be creators. There will always be constraints, but if they can help people feel that kind of beauty in their work, they will be helping employees achieve greater satisfaction.

Q: How does the third point, goodness, fit in?
A: Thoreau once said goodness is the only investment that never fails. Goodness is the power behind business ethics, and I’m talking about the deepest perspective on ethics there is. Ethics isn’t about staying out of trouble. Ethics is about creating strength. A nice side effect typically is staying out of trouble. But goodness is about something positive. That was the perspective of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. They believed goodness is a foundation for long-term excellence. So if you have an organization in which people feel they’re treated fairly with kindness and respect, that’s going to be a stronger organization. We hear so much about how loyalty has been lost in the business world in the last few decades. Goodness brings loyalty back into the equation. Goodness makes a huge difference in both little and big issues.

Q: What about the fourth point, unity? How does unity help workers?
A: Unity is the target of what I call the spiritual dimension of human experience. Everybody wants to feel part of something greater than themselves. They want to feel like they belong, that they’re making their contribution in the world along with other people. So I talk about the different spiritual needs everyone has that have been too neglected in the workplace in the last few decades. And I’m not talking about institutionally religious things. I’m just talking about deep, psychological and spiritual needs that all people have: to feel special, to feel important, to feel like they belong, to feel they’re useful, to feel like the deepest parts of themselves are being called into play in their work. People don’t just show up at work to make money. They want to make a difference. So the fourth part of the book is all about unity and connectiveness.

This fourth foundation of human excellence helps make the workplace a place of meaningfulness for people. As business managers explore the spiritual dimension of human experience, they’re exploring an important and powerful leverage point for excellence in any organization that’s been unduly neglected. For such a long time, business leaders have just talked about quantifiable stuff, as if these other issues are the soft issues. But what company managers are working with here are soft beings, human beings. These issues end up being the most important issues for a company’s sustainable success, I think.

Q: How can human resources professionals begin to influence work processes and people in the workforce with these four points?
A: First of all, they’ve got to expose people to these four points. Then train people on them. These really are the simplest ideas in the world, but they’re also the most powerful ideas in the world. But sometimes people miss the simplest things. William of Ockham, a medieval philosopher, always said, “Simplify, simplify. Find the essential core of any situation. Learn to concentrate on that, and all the complications will fall into place.” Too often human resources managers try to institute all these different kinds of training programs that focus on how to do this and that. A philosopher is concerned with the whys. If you don’t understand the whys, you won’t ever get the hows right. For example, if Hewlett-Packard or Toyota do certain things, many managers at other companies think they should do likewise. But, the ancient philosophers always said, “Know thyself.” Companies should make alterations that fit their organizations. So first of all, everybody should be exposed to the deep roots of excellence in human nature, the universal human nature that we all share. What are those leverage points in human nature for making sure people do their best and feel their best about what they’re doing? That’s what the great philosophers bring to us. So, HR people could start injecting some of these big-picture perspectives into their training and then talk about how these ideas mesh into people’s lives. HR people need to realize that new gimmicks come down the pike every month, but what they’ve got to do is get their bearings with some of the most fundamental ideas that have never changed.

Q: How can American businesses regain the lost hearts and souls of their workers through either Aristotle’s plan or your plan?
A: Business executives have thought about numbers more than they’ve thought about people. Of course, they’ve got to have sustainable, profitable businesses. But they’ve also got to remember that with all the emphasis on product quality and on process efficiency, if they lose sight of the spirit of the people who do the work, they lose everything. It’s the spirit of the people who do the work that’s the core of any sustainable enterprise. By losing sight of that, modern American business has drifted so much so that people are instituting all these policy changes, such as process changes, reengineering and downsizing. Yet, managers are saying, “Why isn’t it working the way it was supposed to?” So much of modern business thinking is process-oriented rather than people-oriented. But ultimately, it’s the people who are the key to success. Relationships rule the world. And if [managers] ignore relationships for the sake of abstract, quantitatively measured process improvement, they’re barking up the wrong tree. The science of business has to do with the philosophy of human nature, ultimately. In his famous book “The Republic,” Plato once said, “It’s not until philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers that we’re going to have a good society.” He believed the people in charge better understand human nature. Yet, that’s not what business schools train future leaders in.

Workforce, October 1997, Vol. 76, No. 10, pp. 75-79.


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