Thursday, 10 December 2020

Aristotle and the Ethics of Management Consulting

by David Shaw

The ethics of management consultants, and of management consultancy firms, are often questioned, sometimes with justification. Trust in the professionalism of management consultants depends on clients’ and other stakeholders’ perceptions of their character. Aristotle’s account of virtue ethics, with its emphasis on character, provides a substantial contribution to modern philosophy, and valuable guidance for the ethics of the professions and of business, including that most modern of businesses, management consulting, despite the passage of more than two millennia that separates our time from his.

Aristotle was the son of the physician to the King of Macedon and, perhaps because of this, he frequently draws upon analogies from medical ethics in his work. His work has had considerable influence on the ethical standards advocated for the traditional professions, such as medicine and the law. The ethical standards to be expected in the management consulting industry may be compared with Aristotelian ethical standards appropriate to the traditional professions. While there are clear similarities between management consultancy, as a kind of helping profession, and medicine and the law, the standards adopted in the traditional professions cannot be imported wholesale into management consultancy. Aristotle’s intellectual and moral virtues of prudence, justice, liberality, courage, friendliness and truthfulness can be related to management consulting just as they can to the traditional professions, but in distinct ways. Clients of management consultants are in a far less vulnerable position than a sick patient seeking the help of a doctor, for example, or an accused person seeking the help of a lawyer, so it is reasonable to expect them to be in a much better position to look out for their own interests. The management consulting industry has its own distinct characteristics that must be reflected in the ethical standards that its members should be expected to follow, and in the boundaries that should be set between the ethical obligations of the management consultants and the responsibilities of the clients to look after their own interests.

Aristotle was actuated by an aspiration for human flourishing, whereby people would enjoy all the good things of life that they could with good conscience enjoy without unnecessary prohibitions. He sets a positive target of ethical behaviour at which people should aim in pursuit of this aspiration. The adoption of Aristotelian ethical standards would help ensure that management consultants would undertake good business, wherein the management consultants would have the necessary knowledge and skills to do a good job, meet their clients’ expectations in full, achieve outcomes that would be in the overall interests of their clients, take bold action where that would be what the situation required, and participate in organisational politics but only to the extent that it was in the clients’ overall interests. Management consultancy firms frequently publish codes of ethical practice that are replete with prohibitions, and in practice are frequently cast into shadow by targets for sales, the proportion of consultants’ time than can be billed to clients, and profitability. Management consultants are more likely to be motivated by a positive, Aristotelian target of ethical practice, and to hit it on a regular basis.

Dr David Shaw is a Teaching Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, responsible for teaching Masters students in the School of Business and Management, and researcher in the management of organisational change. He was recently selected as a finalist in the CMCE Consulting Research awards 2020. His paper 'Aristotle and the Management Consultants: Shooting for Ethical Practice' highlights the continuing relevance of classical studies to even the most modern of industries.  

The CMCE Press Release can be seen here.