Instilling a Higher Sense of Purpose in Business Education

Looking at face in mirror

Higher education faces a dilemma between fulfilling its students’ fiscally driven wants and their educational needs. This is a particularly acute dilemma for business schools, creating an “existential crisis,” according to Julian Friedland, an assistant professor and coordinator of global corporate social responsibility at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and Tanusree Jain, an assistant professor in ethical business at Trinity College Dublin. In their paper, “Reframing the Purpose of Business Education: Crowding-in a Culture of Moral Self-Awareness,” in the Journal of Management Inquiry, they offer what every existential crisis needs: a raison d’être.

An essay Friedland and Jain wrote describing their approach, which involves leveraging moral self-awareness, appears below the abstract for their academic paper.

Numerous high-profile ethics scandals, rising inequality, and the detrimental effects of climate change dramatically underscore the need for business schools to instill a commitment to social purpose in their students. At the same time, the rising financial burden of education, increasing competition in the education space, and overreliance on graduates’ financial success as the accepted metric of quality have reinforced an instrumentalist climate. These conflicting aims between social and financial purpose have created an existential crisis for business education. To resolve this impasse, we draw on the concept of moral self-awareness to offer a system-theoretical strategy for crowding-in a culture of ethics within business schools. We argue that to do so, business schools will need to (1) reframe the purpose of business, (2) reframe the meaning of professional success, and (3) reframe the ethos of business education itself.

While getting acquainted as new colleagues at Trinity Business School, Tanusree and I would occasionally meet to compare notes at one of our favorite Dublin pubs. We soon found that while we both very much applauded the increasing prevalence of ethics, social responsibility, and sustainability perspectives in global business school curricula, we were struck by the persistent structural obstacles to making good on these noble pedagogic aims.

For to stand out from the pack, business schools increasingly compete for their students via opposite incentives, namely, high post-graduation earnings and celebrity alumni movers and shakers. Indeed, for all the talk of social consciousness at academic conferences, personal wealth remains the imprimatur of business success par excellence – a trend that has only intensified given the increasingly costly and competitive market for business degrees. How then, we asked ourselves, can business schools expect their students to take ethics and social responsibility truly seriously if they continue marketing to them almost exclusively by appeals to achieving great wealth, power, and social status?

Tanusree Jain, left, and Julian Friedland

We take this to be the central challenge for those business schools genuinely interested in instilling a sense of moral purpose and integrity into their students. The key is for business schools to re-frame professional fulfillment and business success in broader and more ethically comprehensive terms. To do so, we need a framework that sparks progressive levels of self-reflection that allows for the development of such a view.

What is innovative about our approach is the leveraging of moral self-awareness (MSA) – a novel moral-psychological tool Julian Friedland develops in his previous work – for triggering our innate propensities toward virtue.  MSA is a 4-stage evolving mindset informed by reflection on moral identity, namely what one’s actions say about oneself given (a) the negative impact on others or society that one’s action may effect, and (b) what one contributes to others and/or society by taking a given action.

MSA Level 1 – Social Reflection

At the first level, individuals rely chiefly upon negative feedback from observers to guilt or shame them into improving their behavior. Think of imperatives like “Don’t litter!” or “Keep your feet off the seat!”

MSA Level 2 – Self-Reflection

At the second level, individuals become more self-reflective. Rather than relying solely on outside observers to bring negative impacts on others to their attention, actors themselves start to take on the role as their own source of feedback—often following another person’s positive example. Think of observing someone picking up a piece of litter and thinking “Perhaps, I should do that too.”

MSA Level 3 – Anticipatory Self-Reflection

At the third level, individuals start to become forward looking, conceiving of potential negative impacts on others before acting. This forward-looking behavior often comes after self-reflection on prior behavior has led to an internal sense of guilt or shame. Think of acknowledging and correcting unhealthy habits in one’s children or acting to lower one’s carbon footprint, or gardening with fewer potentially toxic chemicals.

MSA Level 4 – Proactive Self-Reflection

At the fourth, and highest, level, individuals become increasingly forward looking, considering not just their potential negative impacts on others, but their potential positive impacts and purposely engage in appropriate actions in order to realize those positive outcomes. At this highest level, individuals internalize the ideal of the self as potential hero rather than potential villain. Think of choosing to patronize local businesses, more responsible corporations, or crowdfunded enterprises.

Ultimately, we show how this kind of motivational framing can be introduced into business school marketing and curricula to effectively instill a durable sense of social purpose in business school culture and education. To do so, we provide practical suggestions at both the structural and classroom levels for reframing the purpose of business, the meaning of professional success, and the ethos of business education.

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