by Kent Johnson, J.D., Senior Corporate Advisor, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
Part of the blog series, Authenticity & Connection
Economist Milton Friedman famously said,
“There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to INCREASE ITS PROFITS so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” (Emphasis added).
Do you agree?
Set aside for a moment the carefully worded WHY that your company may already have put in writing; the one that defines social responsibility in less craven terms than Friedman used. What’s REALLY the main why that’s driving your company?
Today I’ll suggest a course that clears the way to truly embrace a rich, resilient, and productive WHY. I’ll describe what, for many, will be a new kind of connection; one that will engage your increasingly diverse workers.
Nearly all major faith traditions agree that, when it’s the preeminent goal, the profit motive is a toxic master. When profitability is preeminent, the culture drives people to secretly walk as close to the edge of legality and ethics as they can, without getting caught. Over time, such a culture fans distrust among coworkers. It breeds skepticism, disloyalty and fear. It forces employees to hide their personal values and aspirations, as if they were something to be ashamed of.
For clarification, I’m emphatically NOT denigrating profit, and I’m not intending to frame the issue as pitting virtue against profit… as if maximizing one necessitated diminishing the other. Far from it. I’m simply pointing out how open discussion of people’s core values helps guard against making profitability the overwhelming value.
In the fight against Covid-19, rampant skepticism was heaped on pharmaceutical companies and logistics suppliers. Were they improperly taking advantage of the pandemic for financial gain? Skepticism about companies’ motives was also fanned by automotive lawsuits, where companies allegedly ignored concerns from employees about possible environmental and safety risks in order to save a few dollars per car. Many other examples will come to your mind. Think about it: Do you trust “big business” to care about anything but monetary gain?
Companies today need to clearly define their core values and their mission, and then connect their actions with their core values. They’ve got to look beyond the short term “bottom line.” But how should they go about defining and establishing those core values as real, outcome-determinative factors?
For this, I contend that they should look to the hearts and minds of their diverse people.
We at the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation have seen, time and again, the positively transformative effects that flow when companies and government agencies take the bold step of asking their employees to bring their core values and beliefs to bear in the workplace.
When we encourage people of faith – and atheists, and agnostics – up and down the reporting chain, to openly discuss their core beliefs and principles with management and with each other… and to listen carefully and respectfully to one another… several richly beneficial effects follow. First, simply by prompting such discussion, Management sends a much-desired message: that the core values and beliefs of their people MATTER to the way the company works. Their values and beliefs are not an obstacle. They’re not irrelevant. They are a treasured asset. They should be expressed.
Second, by inviting voluntary, open sharing of personal value systems, we enable our people to make themselves personally accountable to each other to conform to those values. In an environment where it seems profits are King, this kind of voluntary mutual accountability is countercultural. And positively transformative.
What kinds of values are we talking about here? Among many others, here are just a few specific core beliefs that employees often express when asked:
- — Failing to give credit where it’s due, and taking undue credit to oneself, tears at the fabric of community and purpose, and saps creativity. It’s a form of theft. The same applies to the practice of stifling or failing to listen to the ideas of people of any category who often are excluded by the culture.
- — A “blame and shame” culture is demoralizing. It pressures workers to hide serious problems, rather than address them.
- — Respect for fellow workers, regardless of differences, strengthens culture. (The kinds of beliefs expressed by the winners of RFBF’s “Religious Freedom Film Competition” provide additional examples).
When leaders formally open the door to discussions of core beliefs and values relevant to work, skeptics will think at first that they just want to “look good;” that behind the façade, they’re still driven by short term profitability, however it’s achieved. They’ll presume at first that coworkers who are talking about values just want to appear more virtuous than others. But with time, as the company navigates everyday operations and the sharing continues, sincerity, authenticity and connection gain credibility. Skepticism begins to dissolve and give way to solid hope.
Open this door. Then be amazed at the positive effects on your company’s true WHY.
Special thanks to Paul Michalski for several of the ideas I incorporated into this piece; including the quote from Milton Friedman.