Season 2, Episode 7: Interview with Gianpiero Petriglieri Discussing the Future of Business Ethics

Gianpiero Petriglieri
October 22 , 2020  |  By Cindy Moehring

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He started as a medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, but now, this week's podcast guest, Gianpiero Petriglieri, is a professor of organizational behavior and expert on leadership and learning in the workplace. Petriglieri talks with Cindy Moehring about the relationship between leadership and ethics along with his thoughts on where the field of business ethics should be heading in the future. 

As one of the 50 most influential management thinkers in the world according to Thinkers 50, you won't want to miss what he has to share. 


Episode Transcript:


00:00 Cindy Moehring: Hi everybody. I'm Cindy Moehring, the founder and executive chair of the Business Integrity Leadership Initiative at the Sam M. Walton College of Business. And this is The BIS, the Business Integrity School podcast. Here, we talk about applying ethics, integrity and courageous leadership in business, education, and most importantly, your life today. I've had nearly 30 years of real-world experience as a senior executive. So if you're looking for practical tips from a business pro who's actually been there, then this is the podcast for you. Welcome. Let's get started.


00:39 Cindy Moehring: Today, we have a very special guest with us, Gianpiero Petriglieri, who is an expert on leadership and learning in the workplace. He is an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. For those of you who don't know INSEAD, it's the graduate business school in Europe, Asia and Middle East. Gianpiero is also very interesting here, a medical doctor and a psychiatrist by training, who's been researching and practicing in the field of leadership development for the past two decades. He directs the INSEAD management acceleration program, which is INSEAD's flagship executive education program for emerging leaders. He's also the academic director of the INSEAD initiative for learning innovation and teaching excellence.

01:23 Cindy Moehring: He has received numerous awards for his research and his teaching. He's also a public intellectual who writes regularly for practitioners in the Harvard Business Review, The Sloan Management Review and The Financial Times, among many, many other places. Gianpiero has also been listed among the 50 most influential management thinkers in the entire world. And it is such a pleasure to be able to have a few minutes to talk with you today. So welcome. Welcome to the podcast and the video series, Gianpiero.

01:52 Gianpiero Petriglieri: It's a pleasure to be here, Cindy. Thank you for having me.

01:56 Cindy Moehring: So Gianpiero, it is such an interesting route that you've taken from being a medical doctor and a psychiatrist into academia and teaching management in a business school. So how did you make that transition?

02:11 Gianpiero Petriglieri: Yeah. From, you could say, from one kind of tournament to another, I made a transition in a very torturous and fortuitous way. And people often ask me why you've, you moved very far away from your original training. And in some ways I have, and in some ways, I feel I haven't. I mean I've always been interested in the way work as a central plays in people's life, and sometimes it can help us with our struggle with our mental health and with our ability to feel connected to others, and sometimes it can make the struggle worse. And in my training as a psychiatrist, I was very interested in systemic psychiatry, which is a way to try to understand mental health, not just from the perspective of what goes on in your chemistry, in your brain, in your biology, but also as a function of what goes on around you, in your social system, in your family, in your community, in your workplace. And from very early on, I noticed, obviously, how important work can be in people's lives. Work and the workplace can lift us up, but also they can pull us apart, they can drag us down.

03:25 Gianpiero Petriglieri: And that led me to get interested in coaching and consulting, and then for a long period of time to work a little bit at the intersection of the clinical and developmental work. And then eventually INSEAD invited me to teach a course for three months and that was 14 years ago. I'm still here, I'm still teaching. I'm still doing a lot of work supporting people's personal and organizational leadership development, then I then became interested in also researching what works, what doesn't, why does it work, and why do people often love and hate their work so passionately and what does work do to us. And of course, leadership is a big part of that, because leaders have a large role in shaping workplaces that can be healthier or less healthy.

04:18 Cindy Moehring: Yeah, yeah. They really do, which is why I think that the work that you're doing and your background just... It's such an interesting mix, and I think it's one of the things that probably makes you was effective as you are in what you do. So one of the pieces that you've written that I found particularly interesting, especially at this point in time, where we are in our history with a pandemic and the racism issues, is some research you did about the dehumanization of the way leadership is often taught in business schools. And can you just explain that a little bit and what was your premise there, what are you thinking when you say it's been dehumanized?

05:05 Gianpiero Petriglieri: Well, I was looking at, how is it possible that we invest so much in leadership in universities but also in organizations, and then we seem to get so little of it. We keep hearing how our companies have very narrow leadership pipelines and our communities need more and better leaders. And at the same time, we write about leadership, we research it, we teach it. So there's a disconnect there. There's clearly a disconnect between what we think and write and do and teach, and the impact we have. And one way to understand the disconnect is to think about it as a result of a dehumanization of leadership, and what I mean by dehumanization is that we are often taking leadership over the last 40 and 50 years and either reduce it to something very narrow, very mechanical like a list of tools and skills you have to have so that basically, you can get your way, or we have done something different, we have elevated it to a virtue and we have glorify these near perfect leaders who get everything right and they bring about the future and they clearly live on a plane that is different from everyone else.

06:22 Gianpiero Petriglieri: And this sort of reduction or elevation of leadership, what it does, is it removes it from the everyday human life, which is often a life of conflict and is a life that occurs in communities. It is essentially detached leadership from both its psychological and social context. What I say is the dehumanization of leadership means to disembody it and dis-embed it, to make it look like leadership is something that exists in the abstract, separate from people's body, from people's relationship, from people's culture, from people's communities, from people's moment. And that's essentially a convenient strategy because it allows you then to package a leadership model and sell it or to create nice stories of virtuous people that everyone can emulate without really having to dig in the weeds of, "Okay, what was happening to you in that moment? And what you did, how did it benefit this person and not this other person, and how could it be right in a particular context, but then wrong in a different context?"

07:32 Gianpiero Petriglieri: So a lot of the real complexity, a lot of the social, psychological complexity of leadership gets removed. The problem is, it's not just convenient because very often what we have to do when we do intellectual work is simplify, and there's nothing wrong with that, but the problem is that in the case of leadership, simplification can be harmful because we then conveniently sweep under the carpet a lot of questions that we really should be bringing far more to the surface. If what we are doing really has to be leadership development rather than offering some examples and tools that allow you to be more efficient at reaching some goals, which is really a very narrow, a very mechanistic, very functional view of leadership, which kind of ignores the whole psychological, social, moral dimension of leadership, which instead is so, so, so important.

08:32 Cindy Moehring: Yes.

08:32 Gianpiero Petriglieri: And so in immense ways we have been advancing a de-hydrated, if you wish, to borrow from Nancy Adler's world view of leadership, a narrow view of leadership, an amoral view of leadership and then we've been complaining that the leaders we've got are very efficient, but they're not very empathic, they're not very moral. Well, guess what, we have actually participated, we colluded is the stronger word in the picture of leadership that then gets embodied.

09:05 Cindy Moehring: I see.

09:06 Gianpiero Petriglieri: And if you think of what we do in education is, part of what we do when we develop leadership is not just developing the people, is also developing the images that then people use as templates for their practice. And I think both in our imagery and in our teaching very often, we've employed a model of leadership that's woefully inadequate to address the real richness of what happens when one person claims to lead and others choose to follow.

09:41 Cindy Moehring: Yeah. So at this moment in time, it seems to me that more than ever, the idea of having humanistic leadership is just so important right now with the issues that we're dealing with in the world. And I know that one of the points that you make in your article is to humanize, as you talked with students about, "How does one get to lead?" and that's just one of the questions. So you've shared with us what has happened in terms of the way that it's been taught in both universities and in businesses to dehumanize, what needs to happen, and how do we humanize that more particularly at this moment in time?

10:28 Gianpiero Petriglieri: Well, I think the question of how does one get to lead is very, very, very important. And another way of framing the question is, what makes you a leader? And in the dehumanized view, leadership is a position or a possession. Okay, what makes you a leader is the fact that you occupy a certain place in a social hierarchy, a corner office, a CEO office, a prime minister post, or in another view, is that you have a certain set of skills that allow you to get other people to do what you want, to put it very bluntly.

11:05 Gianpiero Petriglieri: The way we put it a little bit more elegantly is to influence others to reach collective goals, but that essentially is to get people to do what you wanna do. Now, one of the things that a humanized view of leadership does is to say, "You know what, leadership is neither a position or a possession. What it is, is a story that moves in a space to make a story move." It's a story that moves you. It's a story that moves others. It's a story that moves from an idea to reality, and as a leader, what you do is you bring your own story and you... And other people often follow you, because that story is aspirational to them. Your story is their story, and you come together to make it become real. In many ways, leadership is not a position or a possession, it's a story in a space to make that story real, and in fact, where leadership comes from is from your followers. It's not from your position, it's not from your skills, but it's from the people who choose to entrust you to lead them because of the story, not that you tell, but the story you show, the story you offer.

12:22 Cindy Moehring: And the story you live.

12:22 Gianpiero Petriglieri: So once you really... Right, into... The story you live, absolutely. Once you really understand leadership in that way, then of course the question you have to ask yourself is not, "How do I get to that office or how do I acquire those skills?" But what is the story that people see when they see me and what is the story that we are realizing together? That's kind of the question of how does one... That's what it comes to question of, how does one get to lead. One gets to lead by often saying, "This is where we are, and this is where we are going, and why," and credibly, credibly advancing that story because of course, you can tell all kinds of stories, but leadership is not storytelling, leadership is story building. All kinds of stories can be told, but some stories get built, the powerful stories get built. And of course once you begin... Once people follow you because they believe that we should build this story as opposed to another story, of course you're engaged not just in a technical enterprise, of course, there's a technical element to that, "Is that feasible? How do we get there?" But there's also more element to that, which is, why is this story more worthy? And for whom is it worthy? So in many ways, what you have to do when you're trying to humanize leadership development is to build your... Is to conjugate the development of your technical skills, because if you're incompetent, it's gonna be pretty hard to build any story...

13:56 Cindy Moehring: Sure, yeah, right.

13:57 Gianpiero Petriglieri: With your personal history and your social context, so return the psychological, return the social alongside the economical, the technical. And this is not to say that the technical and the functional don't matter. What we need is not a revolution in leadership development, what we need is an expansion because of course the technical matters, of course, the economic matters, of course, if you have the skills, of course, if you have resources, of course, if you have position, you're gonna have much more opportunity to make your... To build your story and to get people to want to build the story you want to build, but the question is, is that story gonna be good, and good for whom?

14:43 Cindy Moehring: It's a very, very powerful, powerful statement. So where do you see... You mentioned morals in there in the story and whether or not people choose to follow you, which is really the essence of true leadership, where do you see sort of ethics fitting into that overall dynamic of someone's story and being a leader?

15:05 Cindy Moehring: Everywhere. Everywhere because any story, any good story... Any story that works, which is any story that has a certain appeal for some people, and often story have appear for some people, and they also repel other people, works because it has a moral, works because it builds a certain world, and it avoids another. So there's... I don't think there's any leadership that doesn't have an ethical dimension if you look at it from this perspective, because in every context, leadership is about building a certain future, it's about making choices. And choices have consequences. And for the ability to, if not predict, which I think is a strong word, to at least consider, entertain, interrogate the consequences of your choices, and the choices other do lead you is an ethical enterprise, it's a choice about what's good and what's not, what's right, and what's wrong. It's not all there is to leadership. But it's a fundamental part of leading, even when you choose to reveal certain things about yourself and keep others hidden, you are making a moral choice, not just a psychological choice, you are making some assumptions about what's right and good for you as a leader to make public and what you better keep for yourself.

16:45 Cindy Moehring: So creating that kind of space and holding that tension inside as opposed to sort of picking one side or the other, how do you see that hooking together, if you will, with this recent statement by the business round table, and changing after 22 years, the view of what the main purpose of a corporation is and saying now that it is to serve all of the stakeholders. Larry Fink and his comments by BlackRock, to me, that exemplifies, I think what you're saying in terms of holding some tension.

17:21 Gianpiero Petriglieri: Yeah, certainly. That's a statement in that direction, is saying, our commitment is broader than to just one group and one ideology. But 'cause very often where you see a commitment to a single group, it's really a proxy for a commitment to a single ideology and saying, "Maybe business needs to be more civilized, less tribal and more civilized." And what I mean by that is that instead of having a single story and you're in if you go on to the story or you're out if you don't agree with it, maybe it needs to actually host more than one story that have equal citizenship. And we need to give equal weight to the function from... Equal weight, the functional, economic part of business and to the sort of the social, cultural part of business. I think it's a great intent, and I wanna underline it's an intent, because I think the road to equality between those two ideologies and principles in business, as in business schools, is still long. Very often, those of us who work from the social cultural angle, even ourselves, we diminish, we undercut, we dehumanize ourselves. And you know how we do it, every time we make, for example, the business case for equality. Well, what we're doing is we're saying is we have to justify the humanistic by saying... By the logic of the instrumental, and every time we do that, humanism dies of a 1000 cuts.

18:53 Gianpiero Petriglieri: Every time we don't say, "Well, this is an equally important... It's an equally important aspect of a healthy organization as, of course, making sure that you have healthy profits and all that." Every time we say, "This is of value, because it does that." We are saying that's primary, we are participating in our own subordination. And I think the road to equality begins with being unashamed in saying, "This matters as much as that."

19:31 Gianpiero Petriglieri: So let's talk about an article that you recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review that was talking about management being at a mid-life crisis. What did you mean by that?

19:43 Gianpiero Petriglieri: What I mean by that is that the pandemic, and certainly, the social justice movements in the US, with Black Lives Matter and also beyond the US, have really brought to the surface some vulnerabilities that were already there. A midlife crisis is often where you have something that shows that a lot of your adaptation you have is... Just are a bit unsustainable. And a lot of the things we're discussing now, issues of... The purpose of capitalism, issues of social justice in the workplace, and in communities, issue of work becoming more insecure and more remote. No, they didn't start in March, April, 2020. Obviously, you've been working in this domain a lot longer and I and many others, but they've now really come to the surface in a way that it's unavoidable. So that's what I mean, that these things that used to be... And we used to come together and talk about them under the rubric of the future of work, as something that we really needed to take care of because the issue of, "The reckoning with... The reckoning with purpose was coming because of the new generation, and really we need to be more inclusive, but we won't be able to do it until the next 15 years, and work will become more and more... "

21:05 Gianpiero Petriglieri: "The internet will disrupt your job at some point in the future." And of course, what's happened in the last six months is we realized the future of work is already here. So now today, now no one else... No one talks about the future of work anymore. We all talk about the new normal. It's like the future arrived, the future has arrived all at once. So that's what I mean by a midlife crisis that we're catching up with questions and vulnerabilities that our bodies, that our collective bodies were already simmering, were already simmering before and now we really have to deal with. And of course, one of the reason why I use that metaphor is because a midlife crisis is a moment in which you realize the limitation of your belief of your prior adaptation to deal with your reality and to deal with your future. And in those moments usually people go two ways. Either they really double down on their defenses and say, "No, no, no, no, they're actually... We can really throw money at this problem and we can really fix it by running a marathon or taking a long trip," or you can say, "Okay, what got me here won't get me there. And so I really need to think about how do I... "

22:22 Cindy Moehring: In fact, there's a book by that... There's a book by that title. What got me here won't get me there. [laughter]

22:31 Gianpiero Petriglieri: There's a book by that title. And in many ways, individuals have always gone through those moments. When I wrote about the midlife crisis of management, I wrote that management as a concept and as a practice is going through that moment. We understood it as essentially a cog in a capitalist machine is really not fit to address the kind of question and challenges that we are facing now, whether those are technological challenges, whether those are social challenges, whether those are economic challenges.

23:04 Cindy Moehring: Since we've come almost full circle, let me ask you one last question about universities and what business schools, in particular, can do to better prepare students to be humanistic, morals-based, values-based leaders that have integrity?

23:29 Gianpiero Petriglieri: Yes. Personalize it. Personalize it. Yes, teach about... Of course, I actually think philosophy, legal frameworks, technical aspects are all very important because there will be those moments in which you face a choice between doing the right thing and the wrong thing. And you know what the right thing is, but you don't have the courage or the support or the ability to do it. And so you do the wrong thing. And those are the kind of classic ethical moments we often prepare for and teach about, but that's only one slice of the ethical challenges you will face.

24:09 Cindy Moehring: That's right.

24:11 Gianpiero Petriglieri: A lot of other ethical challenges will not come with that sort of red light that says, "Right or wrong, do the right thing." "Oh no, I can't do it." They will often come under the guise of take this job offer or not. Do I release this product or not? Do I code it this way or that way? They will look like career choice, technical choice, they will look like business choices. This is why I think it's very, very important that in management education we also teach about what I call the ethics of everyday life. The way... There's no... We often make this arbitrary distinction, one, is that a business decision or an ethical decision?

24:55 Cindy Moehring: It's all wrapped up together.

24:57 Gianpiero Petriglieri: I mean every business decision, if you analyze it from an ethical perspective is an ethical decision. As soon as you stop asking, "What return does it generate?" and you start asking, "What consequences does it have on the future and on other people?" you actually discussed it as an ethical case. And this is very, very important, especially today, because a lot of the graduates that come out of business school will work in organizations that are... One is where there isn't a normative framework, so it's not obvious what the right thing is because the business is so cutting edge that it's ahead of the law, but also of the kind of social discourse that decide... There's no norm, so your decision will be a precedent and also it's more diverse. Those are two things to celebrate.

25:47 Gianpiero Petriglieri: One way to... And an opposite note is that the reason why we are more preoccupied with moral leadership, it's because our students, our graduates, have more and more of the possibility to work in cutting edge and diverse organizations. Therefore, those organizations don't have established norm and don't have a single story. Now, that's progress. That's progress. But success has its price. And the price is, of course, when you work in an environment in which there isn't a normative framework and there is more than one story, then you really ought to ask yourself more forcefully and more frequently questions that you didn't have to ask before, because they have been asked and they've been settled. So all you had to do was to do the right thing right. And now, to be a moral leader is yes, to do the right things in the big red flag moments, but also to ask the right question all the other moments.

26:46 Gianpiero Petriglieri: And I think we need to emphasize both aspects of doing that. And one very philosophical, but also very practical way of doing that is to really infuse the curriculum not just with the question of what generates the best returns or the more attractive career prospects, but really throw in the question of, what's a good life? What's a good life in 30 years? And a lot of us do all this kind of imaginary exercise. No, what's a good life tonight? How do you make the choice about whether you should invite these people to dinner or not, because it's gonna be often in those little choices at work that you'll be more or less inclusive, that you'll have a chance to hear different perspectives or not. So yes, ask yourself, what's a good life in the philosophical way, but also ask yourself, How do you know what's a good life in the next 24 hours? And you'll be surprised how often you come to questions of values, not just of convenience. Unless, of course your only value is convenience, and that's a problem.

27:54 Gianpiero Petriglieri: Right, right, right. So one last question, What's the best book that you've read or a movie that you've watched or podcast you've listened to for fun, but that also had a really just engaging ethical dimension to it, or a moral dimension to it?

28:10 Cindy Moehring: I read a book that moved me so much, and surprisingly too, it's a book published by the author who's very popular and very established in the United States, Jhumpa Lahiri. You might know her for her collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies that... One that's full of surprise, and she's done beautiful fiction work narrating the experience of the first generation of children of Indian immigrants. And of course, she has become a very established literary figure. And at some point in mid-life, she decided that she was so established she couldn't really speak any more of the experience of someone, of the immigrant of someone who arrived into a subculture from the outside. So she moved to Italy and she made herself... She learned Italian, but to the level where she could write fiction in it. Now, for any one of us who read and write in a second language, that's... Well, we know the struggle. And it really touched me to read her stories in Italian, in my mother tongue. And it was just so beautiful and it was also just... I'm not sure I can explain entirely why, but it spoke of a journey that was similar to mine and yet in the opposite direction of mine, but with the same intent, with the same intent, the ability to keep...

29:43 Gianpiero Petriglieri: You started by saying, I am always a little bit of an immigrant in the world of business, because I come from this other world, and in many ways that's been a struggle. But it's also been a source of insight because sometimes... And sometimes when you're an outsider, you can see the inside a little bit more clearly or you can say it, because you don't understand the risk of doing that. And what she says is, in order to maintain that outsider-ness, you have to, of course, move towards it. You don't just have to escape, but you have to move towards... And I think to retain that ability to move towards the other, to move towards the unknown, for me, it was very inspiring, very touching, and it reminded me that very often, a lot of what we're doing in leadership development is helping people not just find themselves, but make themselves. Not just find where they come from, but also build a home. And when we have a chance, not just to find a home but build a home, we're very, very lucky. Indeed, it's a privilege to use wisely. So that's that.

31:02 Cindy Moehring: That's very touching. That's great. Well, Gianpiero, this has been a very illuminating conversation, and we've covered a lot of ground. And thank you so much for the time you've spent with us today. It's been fabulous.

31:16 Gianpiero Petriglieri: You're very welcome. It's been a pleasure, Cindy. Thank you for having me.

31:20 Cindy Moehring: Absolutely. Thank you. Bye-bye.

31:23 Gianpiero Petriglieri: Bye.

31:26 Cindy Moehring: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The BIS, the Business Integrity school. You can find us on YouTube, Google SoundCloud, iTunes, or wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, and you can find us by searching TheBIS. That's one word, T-H-E-B-I-S. Tune in next time for more practical tips from a pro.