Based on an interview with Guillaume Mercier, IÉSEG, about his paper* “Formal and Informal Benevolence in a Profit-Oriented Context” (Journal of Business Ethics, 2019), co-authored with Ghislain Deslandes.
To address employee disengagement, some business leaders are considering incorporating benevolence into managerial practices. However, to what extent can and should a genuine, caring attitude among colleagues be managed? IÉSEG’s Guillaume Mercier examined these practices and offers tips to help foster kind attitudes in the workplace.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” wrote Adam Smith back in 1776, setting the tone for what would become capitalism. Indeed, modern corporations often still operate with profit, not kindness, in mind. However, they are paying the price, with cynicism and disenchantment undermining employee motivation, if not threatening the whole organizational system as we know it. Some business leaders and business school curriculums advocate benevolence within companies to bring meaning back to the workplace. Certain corporations have even set up processes to encourage altruism within the ranks.
But can benevolence be artificially induced? And could such strategies be counterproductive? To date, little research attention has been paid to how companies encourage their staff to behave more kindly towards each other in a profit-oriented setting. In order to address this gap, Guillaume Mercier and Ghislain Deslandes examined a practice known as “upward feedback” in a French consulting firm.
In an upward feedback system, staff report on their managers in routine appraisals with the aim of encouraging managers’ good treatment of their subordinates.
“There is a lack of benevolence in many organisations and we investigated how corporations can instil it in their practices. We observed that they want managers to reach a certain level of benevolence. But they don’t want them to be too benevolent because they fear it would be detrimental to the corporation, with employees potentially taking advantage of what they could perceive as a manager’s weakness, lack of authority or leadership, ” Mercier explains.
“We saw that corporations monitor benevolence with the help of formal tools (feedback systems, rewards and punishments, etc.) so that managers are caring enough that employees stay within the corporation and are motivated and perform well. This is benevolence aimed at growing profit. We also saw a second type of benevolence, which is informal, and develops at the margins of the corporation, without any monitoring by the directors. This is discretionary; anyone can decide to be caring with the aim of friendship or mutually beneficial relationships.” Mercier and Deslandes identified three key lessons from their work:
Artificially encouraged benevolence is one thing, but it is no replacement for letting relationships flourish organically. It is important that employees have the opportunity to bond and to develop relationships; these bonds will prove valuable for healthy working relationships within a company. “Managers should give room and create spaces for employees to have real discussions and interact with one another and become friends,” says Mercier.
While it is important that companies do give their employees space to be benevolent informally, informal benevolence alone is insufficient for healthy work relationships in corporations. In the real world, companies cannot rely on the assumption that employees will like one another and behave benevolently to each other, on their own. Benevolence must be monitored to send the message that a kind and caring attitude is required and an essential part of the job, not only for the good of the corporation, but also for the good of everyone in the company.
Is benevolence genuine if it is bound by profit? Today “formal benevolence is too much seen as an instrument for creating profit”, says Mercier, but if we want benevolence to develop fully then we must consider benevolence as a value in itself.”
Employees who scrutinise their managers’ benevolence will be more likely to be positively impacted by it if they see it as genuine. This raises a ‘benevolence paradox’: benevolence is more efficient in influencing beneficiaries’ behavior when it does not appear to be directed at this objective, when it is felt to be authentic. True benevolence requires acting in a way that serves the good of another: being attentive as a manager to employees’ needs, personal development, professional development and work-life balance. This goes beyond merely offering perks or making table football available. It consists in a real attention to employees’ personal good, for example: what task or responsibilities should the manager give an employee to help them develop new skills, when should they accept that they stop working at the expense of company profit and encourage them to devote themselves to their family life.
Mercier and Deslandes’ work will be valuable for companies that are considering how they can foster healthy relationships and behaviors within their workforce and help their employees progress.
In this study, Guillaume Mercier and Ghislain Deslandes conducted interviews with staff and collected data in a French consulting firm.
Guillaume Mercier is an assistant professor in business ethics at IÉSEG. In his research, he focuses mainly on the development of virtues (benevolence, truth-telling, practical wisdom, etc.) in an organizational context, and the interaction between individual and organizational ethics. He has been investigating the insights of the Catholic social thought for business, especially the notions of common good and community. He received his Ph.D. in Management Sciences and Business ethics at ESCP Europe in 2016.
*“Formal and Informal Benevolence in a Profit-Oriented Context” (Journal of Business Ethics, 2019) Guillaume Mercier (IÉSEG School of Management) and Ghislain Deslandes (ESCP Europe).