Picture of Dr. Michael Spangenberger and Udo Lingen next to each other; black-and-white-gradient

“The stairs will be swept from top to bottom.”

Dr. Michael Spangenberger and Udo Lingen talk about the transformation of soft values into hard factors.

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Business ethicist, Dr. Michael Spangenberger, in conversation with Udo Lingen, T-Systems Head of Health Insurance Sales Germany, about business ethics, demands on executives and the transformation of soft values into hard factors.

Dr. Spangenberger, what role does “value-oriented corporate management” play today?

Pictur of business ethicist Dr. Michael Spangenberger sitting at his desk

Dr. Michael Spangenberger, business ethicist

We have experienced decades of technological development in which products, the new patent, and price were important. Today, however, leadership and orientation are in demand because we live in a time of profound, fundamental change at breathtaking speed. It is therefore a question of the socio-political responsibility of managers to ensure that their employees have a promising future despite the incredibly rapid pace of technological development.

But in terms of increasing competition and the hardness of the business, is there not a danger that soft factors, behind which multiple values are hiding, will fall by the wayside?

It is a misunderstanding that only those in the business world who act tough are successful. Rather, it is a matter of creating a balance between material and immaterial values. For this you need a living organization that is always centered on people. Without these people as individuals, the common goal of an economic success of one’s “own” organization cannot be achieved.

Is modern leadership in this respect a much more difficult task today than it was years ago?

Absolutely. What is important for this, apart from integrity, is the authenticity of the leader, who is characterized by the fact that they really mean what they say and support it internally. Only by living a set of values directly can they function as a role model. You don’t learn to be a role model at a business administration school.

Does the combination of integrity and authenticity lead to natural authority?

In order to complete what is generally understood as business ethics and is being sued for in many places, there is a lack of seriousness alongside integrity and authenticity – and these qualities are all equally important. Behind this is that what you as an executive outwardly represent for the company must be reliable, credible and verifiable to the reality of life.

The growing interdependence of national economies, the Internet and industry 4.0 with increasingly intelligent machines are opening up entirely new opportunities for companies – both for growth and for destruction. How narrow is this line and how can it be made more viable for managers?

I believe that business leaders must first find their own private, individual orientation – also in order to draw security from it. In this sense, the path to business ethics is always also a path to the inside.

How far down from top management levels you address does this mentality have to prevail in order to be lived? And whose task is it to ensure this?

Such a view must be part of the corporate philosophy and culture. And then to develop it successfully, deep into the company, can take years, sometimes decades. But only on the condition that this attitude starts at the top. It also holds true for business ethics that the stairs are to be swept from top to bottom. It does not mean that corporate leaders place high demands on subordinate levels. Anyone who acts in this way fails to recognize that an executive has much more power and many more instruments than a normal clerk to turn business ethics into living reality.

Apart from that, how would you describe a modern qualification profile for executives?

Picture of Mr. Udo Lingen and Mr. Dr. Michael Spangenberger during a conversation.

Business ethicist, Dr. Michael Spangenberger, in conversation with Udo Lingen, T-Systems Head of Health Insurance Sales Germany.

It’s no longer just about technical skills and maximizing profits. These are still the tasks of a company, but these are no longer enough. We need a new, also spiritual project in which the economy of the future is more than what we are currently experiencing. And what are we experiencing now? That we in the so-called industrial nations have achieved the highest possible wealth that has ever existed in the history of mankind; that at the end of all these assets, there is simultaneously a lack of contentment, of finding happiness, of finding meaning. The Greek philosophers have said that man strives for eudemonia, that is, for a fulfilled life. Currently, however, we see a society outside that can afford any form of mobility and experiences many forms of material well-being. At the same time, we see a society that suffers from senselessness and loneliness and registers a marked increase in suicides worldwide – all signs of an unfulfilled human life.

This has to do above all with the protection of the individual and the dignity of the human being. If we alone want to uphold these values, one sees a great need for action in Europe. How do you personally see this?

First, there is the fact that Europe is centered on issues of prosperity and material wealth. One could call this hedonism, or at least unlimited consumerism. And as meaningful as it may often seem, no one is against wealth, but they are not creating a meaningful life by being against it. At this point, I consider it a central task of managers in companies to actually make meaningful adjustments. Not because the company is a family, but because people spend most of their waking hours in companies with their superiors and colleagues.

Do you exclude the possibility that many companies are nevertheless seen by their employees as a family?

I exclude the possibility that companies are like families.

Let’s assume it would be characterized by a kind of “family spirit.” Would you see this as a disadvantage?

The company should not be shaped by a family spirit, but by a spirit of solidarity. We all know enough examples of German companies in which it is not the spirit of togetherness but the spirit of antagonism, mobbing, hostility, cheating and lying that prevails. And that is poison for the meaningfulness of human life.

Do you assume that people with a tendency to preserve their vested rights will face a corresponding change in values with the necessary open-mindedness?

Undoubtedly, flexibility and capacity for change vary gradually from individual to individual. But it is also quite certain that changes in the conditions of survival – of their companies and of their own workplace – will force people to adapt to this process. It is the task of a manager to support them in this process. Not regulations, not strategic management, but giving people support and solidarity in order to achieve common goals.

“What you as a leader outwardly represent for the company must be reliable, credible and verifiable.”

Dr. Michael Spangenberger, Business Ethicist

Would you say that traditionally soft factors are currently turning into very hard ones?

Definitely. We have to work on the side of the immaterial in a very existential way. An individual has a desire to preserve peace, freedom and prosperity, but also with an economic, social and political dimension. I can only refer to the Norwegian Anders Indset and his recently published book “Quantenwirtschaft – was kommt nach der Digitalisierung?” A kind of memorandum that seeks a new understanding of economy and society. An understanding that urgently needs to be discussed, thought through and reflected upon in companies as well. In this respect, ethics is the scientific reflection of norms, values and laws in which our actions should take place.

Anders Indset depicts, among other things, the scenario of a post- humanist society in which algorithms and machines will deprive us of power because, despite a series of “disappointments” – in the sense of wake-up calls – we have still not understood which path techno- logical development is taking. How realistic is that?

In my opinion, the value of this book in the sharpness of its analysis cannot be overestimated at all. Whether one judges this differently at one point or another is completely irrelevant. The main thing is that the discourse that emerges from such a book takes place. In it, Indset also says: “We had an old economy, now only folklore remains. It was followed by a new economy, which is almost history. Our new economic system will be the quantum economy, and it will increase people’s demand for immaterial values as a necessary complement to everything that is materially important to us so immensely that this development will turn our entire economic system upside down.” I think this is very much worth considering.

How do you encourage companies to communicate such messages? 

My company CHORVS endeavors at the executive level to create platforms for management boards, supervisory boards and shareholders on which they can reflect intensively on the values they aspire to uphold. Additionally, we pave the way for employees to participate in this attitude. Of course, the respective curriculum must differ for the different hierarchical levels, but it is only through participation that everyone’s idea will ultimately be heard with regards to corporate identification. We want to represent a morally shaped company.

But this leads again to the question: who actually stays at the wheel? Who remains the creative force?

Picture of business ethicist Dr. Michael Spangenberger in a conversation

Dr. Michael Spangenberger, business ethicist

Correct. And the creative force is to be found where someone has voluntarily stepped up to the top ranks of a company. This is not a privilege, but a category of responsibility with maximum magnitude. I have the greatest respect for the CEOs of our companies when they take on this role of assuming responsibility. There is something else you can learn from Indset: it is precisely these disappointments that you spoke of. We understand disappointments to mean that it hurts to realize that something is not what it looked like. In the truest sense of the word, disappointment describes the abolition of deception. The abolition of misinformation, fake news, seduction, ideological disorientation, radicalism, xenophobia and human rejection. These are the things that we must prevent from coming to life in our companies.

How concretely?

We are currently designing an in-house university that will offer employees from all hierarchical levels the opportunity to participate in a discourse that is absolutely essential. The aim is to impart competence and knowledge in order to implement this new ethic into everyday life. The term “applied philosophy” describes this even better than “ethics.” Applied, because it enables managers to use the right language, instruments and platforms to reach even large groups in their organization and ultimately shape the entire corporate culture for all employees. This requires steep learning curves. And I’m already predicting one lesson: in the future, business success will only be truly sustainable in an ethically oriented, moral environment. Everything else is intermezzo for the quarterly report. And of course, it has a short lifespan.

Lifetime is a good keyword. In the case of diseases, for example, in the role of the patient, which each of us sometimes experiences ourselves, we seem somewhat uncertain with regard to how our health economy – but also our personal care – could benefit from AI, IoT, cryptography and IT security. Is this a typical German state of mind?

Health economy or health service is a singular area of life that affects everyone from premature babies to palliative care. The prospect of becoming a patient increases with our ever-increasing life expectancy. At the same time, much of what belongs to life is subject to social ostracism. Phases of being handicapped, for example, and everything that means feeling pain, suffering and dying. We have a big problem with that and more or less secretly strive for immortality. Today we know that being able to die and being allowed to die is also a blessing. But this can only be combined with human dignity if one asks oneself the question: What comes after death? What about eternal life? What happens to our soul? Questions that are of fundamental importance in every world religion, but which are increasingly taboo in Germany.

So, behind your advice on moral issues with ethical dimensions that companies face today, is your claim to each individual that participation and self-introduction must balance each other out?

Yes, that seems to me to be getting a little lost, even on companies. To have a sense of responsibility for res publica, i.e. for this society from which one has ultimately received a great deal, and for the fact that one must also give something back to this society for reasons of decency and fairness.

Contact: Udo.Lingen@t-systems.com

Author: Thomas van Zütphen
Photos: Oliver Krato

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