The virtue of vice

Today's Financial Times has a fascinating write-up of new research on moral grey zones in business. As Professor Michel Anteby has observed in his study of the aerospace industry in France, companies can benefit by allowing employees to break rules in ways that promote social cohesion. In particular, Anteby notes that French aerospace factories allow workers to use company assets to make personal objects for themselves--technically a misappropriation of corporate property, but one that strengthens the workforce "by providing an outlet for individual flair that could not always flourish in the rigidly controlled manufacturing of aircraft engines."

"They were gaining identity and gaining recognition as craftsmen," says Prof. Anteby. "For them, it is who they are."

Besides making the workers feel better about their work--and thus more likely to work better together--Anteby notes that allowing the workers to make things for themselves creates "an implicit social contract" that results in the workers being "particularly flexible and helpful during exceptionally busy periods at the plant."

There's a lesson in here for charity and social enterprise, fields in which there is substantial pressure for rigorous enforcement of rules, especially in regard to the use of charitable assets. The more we (supposedly) emulate business by imposing strict regulations designed to maximize social return on investment, the greater the risk of dissolving the communal bonds and sense of meaning that are essential for success.