Back to the Economic Power of Decency

Whole Foods Market

I recently had a first in a lifetime experience! 

Pete Buttigieg, a Presidential candidate, was in town.  A friend, who thinks highly of him, invited us to go with her to hear him speak.  We went!  It was held downtown at an event facility and there were several hundred, maybe a thousand, people there.  We were standing with a mob of others near the stage, normally used by musicians.  I was listening and being impressed, and then suddenly, I found myself wondering, “if there were a shooter in the crowd where would they be?” 

I have lived many decades and attended many such events, and never have I been distracted by this thought. “Are they here and where might they be? What would be an escape route?” And if such a tragedy occurred, what was my best option for protecting Marlene and Crista?

I realized in that moment how mainstream that has become and worse, how much a part of my and your children’s thinking that concern has become. 

Life in this country has changed!

What I’m talking about is when decency becomes less important than ideology. 

If the power of decency is being threaded out of our Culture, what impact does that have for business thinking and strategy?

In his book The Decent Society: Avishai Margalit, Professor Emeritus, Hebrew University and Princeton, builds his social philosophy on this foundation:

A decent society, or a civilized society, is one whose institutions do not humiliate the people under their authority, and whose citizens do not humiliate one another. What political philosophy needs urgently is a way that will permit us to live together without humiliation and with dignity.”

OK, even though this has major political implications, I am focusing this conversation toward our business behavior, an area we can immediately do something about!  Business thought and business strategy has brought this country wealth and power for sure!  So, what is the next evolution of thought towards business growth? 

I recently listened to a webinar by Dr. Jeremi Suri, University of Texas,  a thought leader on Leadership.  Dr. Suri was discussing paradigm shifts, and commented that they occur with fair regularity about every decade, the last being the economic crisis of ‘08-’09.  By his math, we are due another one. So, as our society shifts and business thinking shifts, what will the new business theory be? 

Let’s start with what it has been and where its limitations may lie:

“Ethicists in the field of business and economic theory have been loath to challenge the basic premise of economics as a discipline in terms of its ethical context. Ethical principles are therefore assumed to be peripheral (outside of) the primary functioning realities of business…Why do companies behave ethically or unethically?  The answer has nothing to do with the nature of people as good or bad. Rather, it has to do with systemic thought: economics excludes ethics or ethical behavior as a consideration in the process of decision making.  Economic thought has failed to address the issues of human decency, civility, relationships, accountability and duties…Business theory as such, as typically taught, argues that the corporation has to maximize itself (growth and profit), regardless of the effect on the environment outside the firm.  Welfare of the employees, health of the community, and loyalty to suppliers, customers are typically thought in terms of maximizing the corporation’s wealth…”*

That passage was written almost 20 years ago. I think we have seen some improvement in that thinking. However, I think the improvement has been driven by external forces, such as the community and environment, as well as internal employee demands

John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods is leading a whole movement, Conscious Capitalism, based on bringing decency as the foundation of business principles. Significantly, it is a movement for enhancing business performance through what I’m calling decency.

Didn’t your Mom or Grandmother ever tell you “you attract more bees with honey than vinegar?”

Conscious Capitalism is a genuine demonstration of that. The businesses that are adopting Mackey’s philosophy are showing significant returns.

Gallop studies have shown for years, a significant portion of employees (65%) are NOT engaged at work.  They also show a significant increase in engagement when employees feel the organization cares, listens to them, appreciates their contribution and provides opportunities for advancement.  In other words, with decency. I assert, you and I feel the same! 

In the cultural work we do with organizations, building in practices that includes appreciation, accountability, excellence, continuous improvement, personal growth, blameless problem solving…have helped companies build performance into their culture. 

We say it’s simple, “people care when you care!” 

Check yourself. Do your business practices match your human values?  Build on this introspection, model it, and you build growth and performance.

Thank you for being here,

Craig

Addendum

We are not the only ones talking about the topic. As we complete this blog post, The Wall Street Journal published a highly relevant article: https://www.wsj.com/articles/business-roundtable-steps-back-from-milton-friedman-theory-11566205200

*Reilly, B. J., and M. J. Kyj. “Economics and Ethics.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 9, no. 9, 1990, pp. 691–698. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25072087.

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