As one gets older as a professional, one runs into a knotty HR problem, namely, some of the most brilliant minds we run into Finance lack a moral compass. Since the education system does not measure morality, such people often have distinguished qualifications. However, since immorality gets found out in corporate life, such people often run aground in their thirties. So how can you and I avoid getting involved with such people?
Tim Harford’s piece can point us towards a solution. He begins by citing the work done by Barry Schwartz: “I recently read a thought-provoking essay by the psychologist Barry Schwartz, best known for his book The Paradox of Choice. Writing a few years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Schwartz argued that one of the goals of a university education, especially a liberal arts education, is to teach students how to think. The trouble is, said Schwartz, “nobody really knows what that means”.
Schwartz proposes his own ideas. He is less interested in cognitive skills than in intellectual virtues. “All the traits I will discuss have a fundamental moral dimension,” he says, before setting out the case for nine virtues: love of truth; honesty about one’s own failings; fair-mindedness; humility and a willingness to seek help; perseverance; courage; good listening; perspective-taking and empathy; and, finally, wisdom — the word Schwartz uses to describe not taking any of these other virtues to excess.”
Helpfully, Schwartz identifies exactly the sort of person that a flawed recruitment process (which stresses brains over morality) ends up rewarding: “Imagine a person who is hugely knowledgeable and brilliantly rational, yet who falls short on these virtues, being indifferent to truth, in denial about their own errors, prejudiced, arrogant, easily discouraged, cowardly, dismissive, narcissistic and prone to every kind of excess. Could such a person really be described as knowing how to think? They would certainly not be the kind of person you’d want to put in charge of anything.”
Frances Cairncross, former Management Editor of The Economist and now at UCLA, expands Schwartz’s list: “She suggested that if one accepted the premise that intellectual virtues were also moral virtues, a greater one was “humanity . . . a sympathy for the human condition and a recognition of human weakness”.
She also suggested the virtue of “getting stuff done”, noting the line from the Book of Common Prayer, “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.””
The author, Tim Harford, adds a notable virtue to the list and then summarises what you and I need to look for when we recruit: “…curiosity is one of the central intellectual virtues. Curiosity implies some humility, since it is an acknowledgment that there is something one doesn’t yet understand.
Curiosity implies open-mindedness and a quest to enlarge oneself. It is protective against partisanship. If we are curious, many other intellectual problems take care of themselves.
Facts, logic, quantitative tools and analytical clarity are all very well, but the art of thinking well requires virtues as well as skills.”
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