Huntsman Post

Wharton Professor Says Better Cooperation is Key To Ethical Progress

By Allie Jeppson

Students at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business have been given lots of advice by speakers over the years. Tom Donaldson was the first, however, to ever advise them to follow the example of pelicans and pond slime.

Brett Stevenson, left, and Ken Snyder speak with Tom Donaldson.

Photo by Sterling Morris

Dr. Donaldson, professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, gave his unusual advice during a February Dean’s Convocation as he talked about ethical lapses and the negative impact they have had on the economy.

“I want to turn to lower life forms, because I think that they’re smarter than we often are,” Dr. Donaldson said. “They celebrate competition … but at key moments in the animal kingdom, cooperation inside groups turns out to be what saves them from long-term systemic risks.”

Pond slime and pelicans are two such life forms, he said. In times when resources are scarce, pond slime algae often link together to create added support for long-term survival, Dr. Donaldson said. This is one thing which saves their gene pool.

Pelicans can be equally supportive life forms. Though extremely competitive, male pelicans will share their collected prized nesting material, used to attract a mate, with other pelicans for the benefit of the group, Dr. Donaldson said.

This type of sharing between competitors is what Dr. Donaldson called “the pelican’s gambit.”

“It reflects the importance of cooperation in key moments,” Dr. Donaldson said. “A gambit in chess … looks as if it brings sacrifice to you, but in the long run, you win.”

This is the key out of the economic crisis, Dr. Donaldson said. Competitors working together for the benefit of the whole.

Dr. Donaldson said for cooperation between corporations to be successful, they must be willing to share information, tools, and techniques as well as make ethical decisions which will benefit society.

Dr. Donaldson is sought out by the national media and has been interviewed on The Today Show, NBC Nightly News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, and NPR. He has been quoted in major publications such as The New York TImes, The Wall Street Journal, and BusinessWeek.

He was interviewed on the Utah Public Radio program Access Utah. That interview can be heard here. His convocation address can be seen here.

He is the director of the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at Wharton and a founding member of the Society for Business Ethics, an international organization with thousands of members. This group publishes an academic journal called Business Ethics Quarterly, which is ranked in the top ten of all management journals.

The biggest cause for the current economic crisis is the normalization of questionable behavior, Dr. Donaldson said, relating it to a dance floor.

People began to believe that “When the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance,” Dr. Donaldson said, quoting former CEO of Citigroup Inc., Chuck Prince. “Questionable behavior has become normalized within the industry, so that even though everyone knows it’s questionable, they stay in the danger zone.”

Because of this, society stays in the economic crisis, but if people could act after the manner of pelicans and pond slime, progress could be made, Dr. Donaldson said.