Written by Loughlin Hickey, Senior Advisor to A Blueprint for Better Business
This weekend I went to see The Big Short which does a great job at transporting us back to a time and mood that seemed normal then but disturbing now. Brad Pitt of course gets some good lines – not least as he reminds the ‘winners’ the true cost and consequences of their winnings and who really loses and pays. For me it calls out the stark truth that is timeless. Financial transactions have human consequences.
I still think Brad is upstaged however by one of the quotes used to pace the film. It is by Mark Twain and goes as follows: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”
I used it shamelessly this week when I was invited to run a session for students at Cranfield who are studying for an MSc in Management and Corporate Sustainability. I was invited by David Grayson who is the Director of The Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management. David has been responsible for some great work in mapping the universe of initiatives around responsible business.
The session I was running for the students was on the topic of purpose. My starting point is that whilst corporate purpose is very much being talked about you need to be clear on what purpose is meant to achieve before you can judge whether the “chosen ” purpose is appropriate.
This led to a discussion on two areas – what is the role of a company within society? and what is your view of the human person? I got some nods on the first question and some raised eyebrows on the second.
We simplified the discussion into two dimensions. Is business there to make profit or play the full role in society? Is the human person driven by self interest or by the desire to build relationships? I informed them that we were not in search of the ‘right’ or ‘politically correct’ answer – because there wasn’t one. We have our opinions and they needed to be exposed and explored.
Without over-simplifying the debate and the depth of thinking from the students, there was a clear resonance between make a profit and self interest. There was also a clear intrigue about full role of business in society and building relationships. The breakthrough was the connectivity. The resonance comes because profit and self interest is a dominant discourse and also an accepted view of business – no matter how it jars with who we want to be. The breakthrough comes when you accept that profits are a rightful business concern and sought outcome and self interest is part (but only part) of who we are as people. The intrigue resolved is that business prosperity is dependent on sustainable relationships and relationships are built on caring for others. In simple terms the economic model based on humans as predominantly self interested (and related management teaching) is incomplete and wrong. For these students to explore these issues is an inspiration to me because they are the future.
As humans we are both self interested and in search of relationships (this view is supported by both the wisdom traditions and emerging science on the motivations and actions of the human person). We remain in self interest when in fear or when being disrespected. We are joyful and creative when in relationships. So what could we achieve if we rejected what we ‘know’ to be right in favour of what we ‘feel’ to be right? And in practical terms in business we used our business skills to understand and relieve the fears people have in business and encourage and trigger our natural desire to build relationships and create something better? We don’t ‘know’ it works because the dominant discourse says it is risky because you cannot control the outcome. I challenge that and I see more businesses throwing of those shackles and being liberated and purposeful. They are challenging the dominant discourse and getting into what they don’t know but do believe.
“It ain’t want you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”.