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The wrong mean is the new norm

The corporate need for ethical rigor has grown in direct proportion to the focus on “lean and mean” competitiveness. Having made “ruthlessness” a virtue has turned responsibility into a vice.

Many factors are contributing to this ethically harsher business environment. One particularly damaging managerial fallacy is the conventional wisdom relating to “lean and mean” business practices. Mistaking meanness for excellence has contributed to the culture of ethical laxity, and done immeasurable harm to shareholder value, employees, the environment and global society as a whole.

Lazy Meanness

By osmosis or imitation, business has adopted “mean” as the natural complement to “lean,” and as a norm for competitive performance. “Lean and mean” emerged as a shocking indictment of the status quo in the early 1990s. Some companies needed quite dramatic shaking-up, restoring focus on productivity and shareholder value.  Very quickly this tactic for emergency restructuring became a substitute for serious strategy.

So embedded is this orientation that much of the meanness is now invisible to us, like the facile disrespect from most auto-attendant call systems. Unfortunately, meanness is not self-enclosed but becomes contagious. Lean and mean companies tend to be mean to their own employees, who are in turn mean to suppliers or strategic partners, and even lean and mean towards customers. What results is the opposite of a “virtuous circle,” with customers increasingly reciprocating meanness to the companies that downloaded service or degraded respect. Beyond the declining loyalty towards brands and companies, the internal culture of meanness encourages small things done minimally, while things what really matter for sustainability, innovation or human enrichment are neglected.

Creative Leanness

“Lean” is actually an imperative rather than strategy, the commitment to ever-higher efficiency required not only by markets but also by environmental pressures to reduce waste and preserve depleted resources. “Mean” is always an option, a choice about the attitude and sensibility brought to the pursuit of operational leanness. As Michael Naughton of St. Thomas University explains, meanness involves “not so much doing wicked things, but doing small things when one should be doing great things.” Our managerial challenge, which is also the challenge for business ethics, is to go for “lean and most” rather than “lean and mean” – to be doing great things while being responsible for return and efficiency.

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