Desktop version

Home arrow Business & Finance

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Ethical Agility: from understanding to action

To develop Ethical Agility is, ethically speaking, to “be water, my friend," as the martial artist Bruce Lee famously put it. This piece of wisdom encapsulates the idea of a mind (and in Lee’s case, also a body) that is sufficiently adaptable that it can function effectively in the wide variety of different situations in which it finds itself. As Lee continued: “you put wrater into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle it become the bottle, you put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot” (Lee (Li), 1971). This may sound quite figurative, but the point is straightforward: water, by its very nature, adapts its shape to fit the contours of the vessel. The vessel is a metaphor for concrete situations in which one finds oneself. For the martial artist, “situations” might mean primarily fights, whereas for the businessperson doing business in a global environment, it means adaptability in making and carrying out decisions with ethical implications. Though this is a general observation—familiar to businesspeople with experience in many parts of the world—we focus on the adaptability required to conduct ethical business in China, and hence as informed by our Ethical Triad.

Ethical Agility involves internalizing the Ethical Triad—Context, Interconnectedness, and Awareness—to the point of being able to put this mode of thinking into practice: to turn understanding into behavior, to turn knowing that into knowing how. For Westerners, we anticipate that this will be an adjustment, especially at first, because we are talking about internalizing a fundamentally different way of thinking about ethics to the point where one can put it into practice. The flexibility required by Ethical Agility may seem intimidating or just overly philosophical, but an obvious point should be encouraging: over a billion Chinese people practice Ethical Agility every day!

As we have emphasized throughout this book, by introducing the concept of Ethical Agility and advocating fluency in more than one moral language, we are not advocating anything as coarse as “when in China do whatever the Chinese do.” Nor are we advocating abandonment of one’s antecedent ethical frameworks and business objectives. One can gain skills—in this case ethical ones—without losing others, for example, cross-training in different sports, learning multiple languages, or adapting to different corporate cultures as one moves from or interacts with different employers or clients. Consider the famous adage (widely misattributed to Aristotle) that it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without necessarily accepting it. The educated, or as we would put it, “ethically agile” person can appreciate other modes of thought and behavior without necessarily giving up their own antecedent moral values and business objectives, just as one can learn to speak French without forgetting how to speak English.

We can begin to appreciate what it means to practice Ethical Agility by revisiting the all-too-common story of The Hurried Executive from the previous chapter. The Hurried Executive, the reader will recall, flew into China with the unrealistic expectation that a few days would be sufficient to secure a lucrative contract. How could The Hurried Executive have done better? The first step, perhaps outside the immediate control of the executive, was for their superiors to be better-informed, thereby realizing that three days in China is utterly insufficient for making first contact and getting to the point of signing an advantageous contract. The better strategy would have followed a completely different script. First, knowing that there is no real separation between what is business and what is personal (Interconnectedness), the executive could have started by building personal relationships with the people they wanted to do business with. That would have involved committing more time to the trip, practicing some basic pleasantries in Mandarin as well as some basic Chinese manners, bringing (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act-acceptable) gifts for their contacts with a nicer but still-legal one for the most senior contact, and being ready to converse on basic social topics such as family, travel, geography, music, art, and food. With a little study and consideration, they could have added more specialized topics such as Chinese scroll painting, and, of course, varieties of tea! It is important, under these circumstances, to be willing and able to open up about one’s life and family, so that the Chinese partners perceive that the executive’s intentions are genuine, but also feel comfortable that they are actually getting to know’ the person. Much of this may seem like it is not “real ethics” or “real business” but, as we have noted, because of Interconnectedness, there are no sharp divisions between what is business and what is personal, and wffiat is mere etiquette and what is ethics. Understanding Interconnectedness, and being able to put it into practice via Ethical Agility, the savvy executive w'ould avoid the mistakes of The Hurried Executive, thereby opening the door to a much more productive and financially rewarding relationship with the Chinese managers.

Some Westerners might regard the process of acquiring Ethical Agility we describe as too demanding, time-consuming, and expensive. In Chinese terms, they have “drawn the line.” A classic cultural reference for this concept comes, unsurprisingly, from The Master himself (Confucius) in The Analects, during a conversation with one of his students, Ran Qiu.

6.12 Ran Qiu said, “It is not that I do not delight in your Way, Master, it is simply that my strength is insufficient.”

The Master said, “Someone whose strength is genuinely insufficient collapses somewhere along the Way. As for you, you deliberately draw the line.”

(Ivanhoe &Van Norden, 2005, pp. 17-18)

Here, the “Way” refers to a way of living that Confucius advocated, which became both a philosophy and a religion, and was a founding influence on Chinese culture. That influence has endured; to this day, the Confucian way of life is a central and common component of distinctively Chinese ways of life, including in business and ethics. According to historical accounts, Confucius embodied his way to an extraordinary degree. For him, one should cultivate certain virtues—some of which we will discuss in Chapter 5—and that in doing so, one lives a better and more harmonious life. Ran Qiu, the student, claims he finds this Way too difficult, and Confucius calls him out for instead having implicitly decided that he is unable, rather than first putting in a real effort. Western executives who remain glued to the view that learning about Chinese culture and building personal relationships with their counterparts are too inscrutable, complex, time consuming, or costly have “drawn the line.” They have, whether they know it or not, already decided that the Way (or perhaps more accurately the Ways) of doing business in China are too difficult. We believe this can be boiled down to a clear, if sometimes hard, choice: are companies and individuals willing to invest sufficient time and effort in the “soft stuff” we describe in order to take advantage of the commercial opportunities in China, as well as to honor their values and fulfill their ethical commitments?

Thus far we have emphasized the differences between our framework and typically Western frameworks, but the idea of Ethical Agility should not seem totally foreign. An important idea within both Eastern and Western approaches to ethics, beginning in ancient times, is that one grows into being an ethical person by practicing ethically correct thought and behavior until it becomes almost second nature. Confucius, as well as his followers Mencius (Mengzi, rEff") and Xiinzi (Wi), would have agreed with Aristotle on this point (Ivanhoe & Van Norden, 2005, p. 5, Mengzi, 2008, pp. xxiii-xxxvii, Xiinzi, 1994, pp. 139-168). As with other skills—such as martial arts, driving or cooking, as well as skills associated with games and sports—you can, with practice and attention toward improving, get to a point where you no longer have to think consciously about what you are doing. We are all, at some level, familiar with this process, whether it be skills as relatively simple as tying shoes or using chopsticks, riding a bike, ironing clothes, dribbling a basketball, or driving. Aristotle argued explicitly, in fact, that ethical thought and behavior are skills not that different from others (Aristotle, 2012), another point on which he could have agreed with Confucians as well as Daoists. An important point worth re-emphasizing is that one is not limited to only a single skill. In the same way that one can be skilled at several games, sports, or martial arts, one can be skilled in several ways—or Ways—of ethical thought and behavior. The idea of Ethical Agility means adopting an additional framework for thinking about and doing ethics.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics