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Better communication between engineers and managers

Some ways to prevent many ethically hard choices


This article is concerned with ways better communication between engineers and their managers might help prevent engineers being faced with some of the ethical problems that make up the typical course in engineering ethics. Beginning with observations concerning the Challenger disaster, the article moves on to report results of empirical research on the way technical communication breaks down, or doesn’t break down, between engineers and managers. The article concludes with nine recommendations for organizational change to help prevent communications breakdown.

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Notes and references

  1. Note the crucial “seem” in this sentence. The issue of probabilities here is more complex than Feynman (or those he interviewed) indicate. For more on that complexity, see Starbuck, Wm. H. and Milliken, F. J., “Challenger: Fine-Tuning the Odds Until Something Breaks”, Journal of Management Studies (July 1988): 319–340.

  2. Feynman, R. (1988) “An Outsider’s Inside View of the Challenger Inquiry,” Physics Today (February): 26–37, p. 34.

  3. Feynman, 34.

  4. Feynman, 34.

  5. For a good technical description of the “game” Feynman refers to, see Bell, T.E., “The fatal flaw in Flight 51-L”, IEEE Spectrum (February 1987): 36–51. Compare Bella, D. A. “Organizations and Systematic Distortion of Information”, Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering 113 (October 1987): 360–370

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  6. Feynman, 34.

  7. Jackall, R. (1988) Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 112–119.

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  8. Shapero, A. (1985) Managing Professional People, Free Press, New York.

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  9. Raelin, J. A. (1986) The Clash of Cultures: Managers and Professionals. Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, MA; and “The Professional as the Executive’s Ethical Aide-de-Camp,” Academy of Management Executive 1 (August 1987): 171–182.

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  10. Raelin, 1987.

  11. Davis, M. (1989) “Explaining Wrongdoing”, Journal of Social Philosophy 20: 74–90.

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  12. Waters, J. A. (1978) “Catch 20.5: Corporate Morality as an Organizational Phenomenon,” Organizational Dynamics (Spring): 3–19.

  13. Waters, 11.

  14. Henderson, H. (1988) “McGregor v. the NRC: Why did the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fire one of its toughest plant inspectors?,” Reader (Chicago), Friday, July 22, pp. 1ff.

  15. Urquhart, B. (1987) “The Last Disaster of the War,” New York Review of Books, September 24, pp. 27–30; and Petzinger, T. (1988) “Hangar Anger: Mechanic’s Woes Show How Safety Became a Big Issue for Eastern,” Wall Street Journal, Thursday, June 9, pp. 1ff.

  16. Waters (1978); and Waters (1988) “Integrity Management: Learning and Implementing Ethical Principles in the Workplace,” in ed. Suresh Srivastva et al., Executive Integrity, Jossey-Bass, San Fransciso.

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  17. Raelin (1986), 246–263.

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  18. See, for example, Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1988) “Reciprocal Integrity: Creating Conditions That Encourage Personal and Organizational Integrity,” in ed. Suresh Srivastva et al., Executive Integrity, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, pp. 197–222; and Ottoson, G. E. (1982) “Essentials of an Ethical Corporate Climate,” in ed. Donald G. Jones, Doing Ethics in Business, Oelgeschlager, Gunn and Hain, Cambridge, MA, pp. 155–163.

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  19. The only exception we found is Gordon, B. F. and Ross, I. C. (1962) “Professionals and the Corporation,” Research Management 5 (November): 493–505.

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  20. Perhaps the most noteworthy exceptions are the very tentative studies by Victor, B. and Cullen, J. B. (1988) “The Organizational Bases of Ethics Work Climates,” Administrative Science Quarterly 33 (March): 101–125; and Wilkins, A. L. and Ouchi, Wm. G. (1983) “Efficient Cultures: Exploring the Relationship Between Culture and Organizational Performance,” Administrative Science Quarterly 28 (September): 468–481.

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  21. Burns, T. and Stalker, G. M. (1966) The Management of Innovation, Tavistock Publications, London. I should like to thank Peter Whalley for pointing this book out.

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  22. Turner, B. A. (1978) Man-Made Disasters, Wykeham Publications Ltd., London, especially, pp. 17–30, 57–67, 120–125, and 189–199.

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  23. Smith, M. R. ed. (1985) Military Enterprise and Technological Change, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., esp. pp. 11–14 and 87–116.

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  24. Williams, R. (1990) “Engineering’s Image Problem,” Issues in Science and Technology 6 (Spring): 84–86.

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  25. Williams, 84.

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  26. For an apparently analogous case ending in a half billion dollar write-off at General Electric, see O’Boyle, T. F. (1990) “Chilling Tale: GE Refrigerator Woes Illustrate the Hazards in Changing a Product—Firm Pushed Development of Compressor Too Fast, Failed to Test Adequately,” Wall Street Journal, Monday, May 7, p. 1 ff.

  27. See above, p. 196.

  28. See above, pp. 198–199.

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The author holds a National Science Foundation grant to integrate ethics into technical courses. Among his recent publications are: To Make the Punishment Fit the Crime (Westview, 1992), AIDS: Crisis in Professional Ethics (Temple, 1994), and Justice in the Shadow of Death (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996).

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Davis, M. Better communication between engineers and managers. SCI ENG ETHICS 3, 171–212 (1997).

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  • ethics
  • organizations
  • disaster
  • Challenger
  • managers
  • technology