One of the WeThrive team was at the Meaning Conference in Brighton last week – a Conscious Business event full of people who want to make business more meaningful and kinder to the planet and the staff, while still making a fair profit. Speaking as someone who lives on this planet and is a human being, this seems like a good idea, but its critics maintain that business is business and that ‘Conscious’ might just mean ‘less controversial’. Capital and Kindness are not the same thing, they say, so is conscious business doomed?
Well, in the blue corner we have the fat-cat capitalists, eager to flog every last inch of performance out of their wage-slaves; in what used to be the red but is now the green corner we have the old hippies, agonising about the morality of profit and going to such lengths to be nice to people that they fail to break even and end up going down with all hands. These two positions are inherently opposed to each other and anyone who says other wise is, as one reviewer said of John Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, spouting a lot of “well-meaning rhetoric” (hot air).
But this is an oversimplification – business has always involved compromise between profits and ethics, since the abolition of slavery at least. In practice there is a continuum of differing approaches to business, with a harder attitude to profit at one end and more concern for employees at the other. The question for every business person is where on that spectrum to position your management style, given that each point has its own disadvantages.
At the end where the drivers are margin, efficiency and profit, people become part of the machine. We make them work harder by threatening their job security (if there is a shortage of jobs or the work is simple) or offering them more money (if there is a surplus of jobs or rare skills are involved). Carrot-and-stick, in other words. The hope is that these ‘incentives’ will stimulate focus, engagement and productivity. But they actually bring stress, disputes, anger, apathy, burnout and (if there are other jobs to go to) staff turnover. So right now, as business is picking up, people who have been managing on this basis can expect to lose their best employees.
At the other end of the spectrum, where love and peace reign and fulfilling the conscious business dream should be easy, it is often hard to get anything done. Democratic decision-making is agonisingly slow, and it is impossible to tell anyone that what they are doing doesn’t work. It’s just as well everyone is on an equal share of the profit (not that there is any) because pay negotiations would last until the end of time…
So, if you want to achieve a sustainable, profitable, ethical business, how do you decide where to compromise? Actually, you don’t have to: you really can harmonise the needs and goals of the company and the staff. You don’t have to beat people or bribe them, because intrinsic motivation is sitting there in each individual. The same mechanism that powers voluntary, leisure and sport activity in home life is waiting for you to enable it at work. When you do, your staff will work because they want to, and your organisation will do well, if your business model is sound.
Doing this involves aligning the culture, conditions and communications in your company with workings of the human. That is not just ‘well-meaning rhetoric’ because we can unpack it into practical steps which are straightforward to implement. And staff enjoy this process because they recognise it as humane and likely to make work work better for them.
This does not mean applying the same changes to everyone – people need different things to different degrees, so you have to measure the need for change from their perspective to see how to enable each team member. The appraisal or review is a rational place to do this – in fact basing your review process around this discussion is a fantastic way to make use of a process that can otherwise be a fairly negative experience for all concerned.
And so they will want to stay, and to make it work better still, for themselves and for the higher purposes of company, customer and planet.
The leader who wants to use Conscious Business principles has nothing to fear from the staff, or the market, if they are implemented in alignment with the nature of the staff. And there is a good way to be sure you’re doing that.
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