Skip to main content

Plato’s “Noble Lie” and the Management of Corporate Culture

Abstract

Plato’s programme for establishing his ideal state involved propagating two foundation myths for it, described by Socrates as a “noble lie”, which were designed to persuade its citizens to embrace the classes of society to which they had been assigned, and their roles within them, contentedly and in harmony with their fellow citizens. Because most citizens were judged incapable of understanding the truth about the most important matters, the rulers of the ideal state were authorised to tell them whatever stories, true or false, would induce them to behave well. Advocates of the management of corporate culture similarly emphasise the potency of story-telling and myth-making in inducing employees to adopt the beliefs, values and assumptions that corporate leaders consider desirable for both corporate performance and employee wellbeing. There are similarities between Plato’s programme for his ideal state and the programmes recommended by advocates of the management of corporate culture. There are also similarities between them in the ethical questions that they raise. Do corporate leaders have the moral authority to shape people’s beliefs, values and assumptions in the ways that these programmes entail? Are the outcomes to which those programmes lead really beneficial for all those who are affected by them? Even assuming that those outcomes are beneficial, how likely are the strategies proposed for realising them to be successful? Literature that explores these ethical issues is sparse, and this paper argues that it is doubtful whether any of these questions can be answered decidedly in the affirmative.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Alvesson, M. 2002. Understanding Organisational culture (second edition). London: Sage Publications Ltd..

    Book  Google Scholar 

  2. Alvesson, M., and H. Willmott. 2002. Identity regulation as Organisational control: Producing the appropriate individual. Journal of Management Studies 39 (5): 619–644.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Annas, J. 1978. Plato and Common morality. The Classical Quarterly 28 (2): 437–451.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Blok, V. 2019. What is (business) management? Laying the ground for a philosophy of management. Philosophy of Management 19 (2): 173–189.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Brickhouse, J.C., and N.D. Smith. 1983. Justice and dishonesty in Plato’s republic. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 21 (1): 79–95.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Dombrowski, D. 1997. Plato’s ‘Noble’ lie. History of Political Thought 18 (4): 565–578.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Finley, M.I. 1968. Aspects of antiquity. London: Chatto & Windus.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Fitzgerald, T.H. 1988. Can change in culture really be managed? Organisational Dynamics 17 (2): 5–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Foroughi, H., Y. Gabriel, and M. Fotaki. 2019. Leadership in a post-truth era: A new narrative disorder? Leadership 15 (2): 135–151.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Gabriel, Y. 2018. Storytelling. In Routledge handbook of interpretive political science, ed. M. Bevir and R.A.W. Rhodes, 211–223. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Hesiod. 2006. Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia, trans. Most, G.W. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Hopkins, K. (1967). Slavery in classical antiquity. In: de Reuck, A.V.S. and Knight, J. (Eds.), Ciba Foundation Symposium ‐ Caste and Race: Comparative Approaches, Wiley Online Library, (pp. 166–177) Available from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9780470719503.ch11. Accessed 11 Feb 2021

  13. Mintzberg, H. 1989. Mintzberg on management: Our strange world of Organisations. New York: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Ouchi, W. 1980. Markets, bureaucracies and clans. Administrative Science Quarterly 25 (1): 129–141.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Pascale, R. 1985. The paradox of ‘corporate culture’: Reconciling ourselves to socialisation. California Management Review 27 (2): 26–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Peters, T.J. 1989. Thriving on Chaos. London: Pan Books Ltd..

    Google Scholar 

  17. Peters, T.J., and R.H. Waterman. 1982. In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Pettigrew, A.M. 1977. Strategy formulation as a political process. International Studies of Management and Organisation 7 (2): 78–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Pettigrew, A.M. 1979. On studying organizational cultures. Administrative Science Quarterly 24 (4): 570–581.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Pettigrew, A.M. 2012. Context and action in the transformation of the firm: A reprise. Journal of Management Studies 49 (7): 1304–1328.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Plato (2013a). Republic: Books 1–5, Trans. Emlyn-Jones, C. and Preddy, W., Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  22. Plato (2013b). Republic: Books 6–10, Trans. Emlyn-Jones, C. and Preddy, W., Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  23. Schein, E. 1983. The role of the founder in creating Organisational culture. Organisational Dynamics 12 (1): 13–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Schein, E. 2004. Organisational culture and leadership (third edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Schofield, M. 2007. The Noble lie. In The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, ed. G.R. Ferrari. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Smircich, L., and G. Morgan. 1982. Leadership: The Management of Meaning. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 18 (3): 257–273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Solomon, R.C. 2004. Aristotle, ethics and business Organisations. Organisation Studies 25 (6): 1021–1043.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Whipp, R., R. Rosenfeld, and A.M. Pettigrew. 1989. Culture and competitiveness: Evidence from two mature UK industries. Journal of Management Studies 26 (6): 561–585.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Williams, B. 1981. Moral luck: Philosophical papers 1973–1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  30. Williams, D.L. 2013. Plato’s Noble lie: From Kallipolis to magnesia. History of Political Thought 34 (3): 363–392.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Willmott, H. 1993. Strength is ignorance; slavery is freedom: Managing culture in modern Organisations. Journal of Management Studies 30 (4): 515–552.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Woodall, J. 1996. Managing culture change: Can it ever be ethical? Personnel Review 25 (6): 26–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Woolf, R. 2009. Truth as a value in Plato’s ‘Republic.’ Phronesis 54 (1): 9–39.

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Shaw.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Shaw, D. Plato’s “Noble Lie” and the Management of Corporate Culture. Philosophy of Management (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40926-021-00168-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Corporate culture
  • Myth-making
  • “Noble lie”
  • Plato
  • Story-telling