Even in the competitive, cutthroat corporate space, there are times when humane and just responses overshadow the cold calculus of balance sheets and shareholder dividend.
By Aruna Sankaranarayanan
As India stands devastated in the face of the second Covid wave, many corporates have stepped up to offer support to the families of staff who die of the dreaded virus. From compensating the full salary of the deceased for a fixed number of years to providing for their children’s education to paying for medical expenses, many companies have displayed their compassionate sides. Though these benefits will pinch their bottom lines, especially since businesses have also been hit by the pandemic, everyone applauds these actions as they reveal “practical wisdom.” Even in the competitive, cutthroat corporate space, there are times when humane and just responses overshadow the cold calculus of balance sheets and shareholder dividend.
In their book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, psychologists Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue that right decision-making often involves the exercise of wisdom. For example, how should doctors decide between being empathetic to their patients while maintaining clinical distance to make an accurate diagnosis? Likewise, how do teachers balance curricular pressures while ensuring student engagement? The authors posit that the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, recognized that these every day acts of striking a balance between two equally pressing demands involve practical wisdom. Contrary to popular belief, wisdom is not the sole purview of philosophical texts and treatises but is often required by ordinary people to navigate the many choices we face in our daily lives.
Schwartz and Sharpe claim that to act wisely we need to remind ourselves of the proper goals on a specific activity. Practical wisdom is thus a “moral skill” that helps us navigate the often complex and conflicting pressures of life. Like other skills, practical wisdom accrues with the right kind of experience. Further, rules and guidelines cannot serve as a proxy for practical wisdom. People have to factor in the particularities of a given situation before deciding whether it merits following a rule or making an exception.
The authors believe that both deliberation and discernment are needed to exhibit practical wisdom. First, a person has to deliberate the various choices he or she has and then pick the one that is morally apt in a given context. Deliberation does not merely involve listing the pluses and minuses of each choice; rather, in some instances, it involves viewing a situation through a particular lens. Additionally, we need to figure out the best course of action in a given context. The authors narrate the anecdote of Luke, that was first documented by psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues, that illustrates these two capacities.
Luke worked as a hospital custodian; his job entailed cleaning wards, common areas and restrooms. One day, he cleaned the room of a young comatose patient when the boy’s father had stepped out for a smoke. When the father returned, he met Luke in the hallway and accused him of not cleaning his son’s room. While Luke’s first reaction was to defend himself by saying he had just cleaned the room, something stopped him from arguing with the man. Luke knew that the man’s son was paralyzed and had been in a coma for months, without any sign of getting better. So, instead of contradicting the father or escalating the issue to his boss, Luke chose to simply clean the room again.
When he had to deliberate his course of action, Luke decided to frame the situation around his job responsibilities which he defined as providing care for patients as opposed to the cleaning and housekeeping duties that were listed in his job description. Further, he was able to quell his own needs for honesty and justice in light of the suffering of the patient and his father. According to Schwartz and Sharpe, Luke exhibited “moral imagination” wherein he was able to view the situation from the perspective of his client. Thus, empathy, which has both cognitive and emotional components, is an integral aspect of practical wisdom.
While individuals and organizations may follow rules to guide behaviour most of the time, there are instances when rules need to be broken. If there are too many rules or a rigidity in their implementation, rules can be both burdensome and counterproductive. Knowing when exceptions are to be made involves understanding the particularities of each situation. So, whether you are a parent trying to raise children, a spouse trying to make a marriage work, a boss trying to motivate subordinates or a colleague trying to work with teammates, every relationship is governed by certain rules or principles of conduct to maintain civility and productivity. Yet, we often have to bend a rule, make an exception or try to balance conflicting ones by considering contextual factors. Likewise, seasoned doctors, lawyers, teachers, counsellors, firefighters and pilots have to weigh a multitude of factors before zeroing in on a course of action that fits a specific situation or instance. Finally, Schwartz and Sharpe remind us that practical wisdom goes beyond identifying the right thing to do to actually acting on our motivations.
(The columnist’s forthcoming book will be released by Rupa Publications.)