Is Harvard University Professor, Michael Sandel, just a Dreamer?

by Didier Marlier on Thursday October 14th, 2021

Many of you reported their interest in Michael Sandel’s TED talk, mentioned in my last article. And, if a part were enjoying the ideas put forward by Professor Sandel, they also regretted, in advance, that these could be too idealistic.

For those of you who never heard about him, Michael Sandel is an American Political Philosopher, teaching at Harvard University and is latest book, “The Tyranny of Merit: what’s become of the Common Good?” has had many eyebrows raising in the country of financial capitalism.

In his book, Sandel wonders what has happened to us so that divisive and polarising leaders manage to attract such an almost religious followership, that no science, logic nor fact-based reasoning will deter from their conspiracy theories. For him, this is the result of the slow drift of a commendable ideal (Meritocracy) towards arrogance, selfishness and egocentrism, encouraging the lucky ones (those met by success) to believe that they owe their glory and good fortune to no one else but themselves. Following that ideology, those who struggle have only themselves to blame, and, following reigning “elites”, in particular their lack of determination and education. The “losers”, being ridiculed and made guilty for their own misfortune have grown a rejection of the establishment and look forward to their revenge. This interview on a Canadian TV Chanel summarizes Sandel’s thoughts on the subject.

Sandel see the rise of leaders such as Donald Trump or the decision to Brexit as a consequence of this humiliation and bitterness. And when asked (19’20’’) “If Merit is tyrannical, what should it be replaced with?”, he replies by three points:

  • Praise the dignity of work instead of individual success
  • Offer social recognition and esteem to people making useful contribution to the Common Good
  • During 4 decades, we have outsourced our moral judgment about what really is a valid contribution, to the markets. It is time to reclaim it!

I can imagine some accusing Dr. Sandel of being a dangerous left-wing anarchist. But, as it happens, Switzerland, my country of adoption, which can’t exactly be called a left wing anarchy, pays an extreme attention and owes a lot of its prosperity, to at least two points quoted above.

One of France’s two main TV channel came, a few years ago, to inquire how Switzerland, a neighbouring country, could be doing so well and have so little unrest or violence. The critical point mentioned was the social ladder: Anyone is encouraged to climb it and occasionally reminded that they also owe it to the social system (although, not very generous) that was put in place to that effect. As a consequence, having a child choosing to apply for apprenticeship, at the age of 16,instead of getting ready for College, is a total non-issue for parents and families. I have a niece and a nephew: one graduated from EPFL, our local M.I.T. and was the head of the students’ association, whereas the second chose an apprenticeship. Both choices were highly celebrated and respected. For many years, the bank of the “elite” in Zürich has successfully been lead by an ex-bank clerk apprentice. My mentor, having created his own financial institution and a frequent arbitrator when tensions emerged between bankers, had also started his career as apprentice. And guess what College degree does, Guy Parmelin, President of the Confederation, have? None whatsoever. He is a wine grower and extremely proud of the apprenticeship he followed!

In Switzerland, all jobs are valued and children learn to respect that.

The man in charge of running the collection and sorting centre where we bring our trash, retired during the pandemic and could not be celebrated by the community. The main conversation between us, at a friends’ 60th birthday this week-end, was how should we organize a “white dinner” in the collecting center, to officially celebrate all this gentle man has done for our Community.

Switzerland is not equalitarian, its Ethos is about respect for all but, although it has rejected, long ago, the sort of meritocratic tyranny described by Prof. Sandel. It is regularly ranked one of the top three most business friendly countries, by the World Economic Forum, it just made it (again!) as the most innovative country and is always in good position (although not number one) in the most pleasurable countries to settle in.

This deeply researched presentation from a US channel, focuses on our “Federal Shooting Celebration” where maniacs of guns congregate once a year. I found it hilarious (so that you don’t see this article as boasting the country of which I am now a citizen) and… absolutely fact based. Even the man who looks a bit… say “tired” at the end, is an ex President of the Confederation.

How can all this be of use to the Business Leaders we are? Should the same bitterness, circulate like cancer in your organisation, should conflict surge between specific areas, if negative stories, not fact based begin to emerge, you may be, at the scale of business, in the same state as whole countries, as per described by Michael Sandel. In order to avoid this, focus on three priorities:

  • Become more Relational: The pandemic and its corollary, working from home had us drifting in an apparently efficient and to the point, transactional way of working. Being transactional, diminishes, little by little, the human connection between people, neutralises exchanges and reduces the culture to posters and PowerPoints. When the Managing Partner of a famous Law firm understood the negative impact his arrival every morning on the office’s morale (he was dashing into an empty elevator, reserved by his assistant, reading his mails), he made it a point, everyday, to greet receptionists and spend randomly time on the various floors of the headquarters. The CEO of a large bank, was pretending to arrive at work 2 or 3 times per day, so that he could grab the lift with people he would also randomly invite for a coffee and informal conversation in his office. Both, through these simple means, greatly contributed to install respect in their organisation.
  • Don’t create equality (that is idealist!), promote respect! The way you talk to people, the manner by which you show interest to them is crucial to building a powerful motivation. I never forget this famous Brazilian C.E.O. (three times warded C.E.O. of the year) immediately stopping our conversation when an assistant walked into his office, bringing our coffees. He asked about the health of her child, whose name he remembered, how she had coped with his sickness etc… I had ceased to exist and his whole attention was focused on her. I remember this French C.E.O. who regularly came on our programs , to interact with his people. Prior to arriving, he was carefully studying and remembering their names, pictures and, when available, personal circumstances. Guess how positive was that impact.
  • Reward those who work for the Common Good: Another Swiss Bank and catastrophic impact when the C.E.O. invited to sit at his right a charming lady who had, indeed, reached amazing results by… cheating the values and was behaving with a rare arrogance. Carefully picking those who meet results  for the Common Good should be the celebrated heroes.

Such interviews and examples, fill me with the hope that, at the time of redesigning and building a new Economy, not everyone will want to go back to the old system and will challenge old orthodoxies…such as meritocracy.

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