Did you know that at least notionally some of the world’s leading companies are trying to turn the corporate world on its head?

I was recently struck by a headline “America’s leading companies revise their game plan” (Weekend Australian August 24-25). The article points out that the US Business Roundtable, a group of 180 CEOs from some of the largest corporations in America have revised their statement on the “Purpose of a Corporation“.

According to the Rountable group, Corporations are now there to serve:

  • Customers
  • Employees
  • Suppliers
  • Communities
  • Shareholders – in that order.

It is this reverse order, putting shareholders at the bottom of the list, which is potentially sending the corporate world tumbling. Since the sixties when Friedman wrote what became the bible for corporations and many politicians, Capitalism and Freedom, the list of priorities was a polar opposite. As Friedman said “there is one and only one social responsibility for business – to use its resources in activities designed to increase its profits”, and even more stridently “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible”.

Now forgive me for being a little sceptical about the Roundtable statement since what presents as high ideals can in fact masquerade as an underlying desire for increasing margins and profitability. Thus we have a human dilemma that has been with us since the beginning of humankind. How to remain true to ourselves and our values?

It is a paradoxical axiom that deliberately aiming only for profit or for increasing the size of a company will in fact be self-defeating. The best text-books on business have often taught this. The same is true for employees. Just focusing on financial incentives can be de-motivating, as our deeper needs for finding meaning in what we do are not met. Barry Schwartz (Why we Work) suggests “If you focus on financial reward it distances you from the non-financial purpose of your work and you can lose intrinsic motivation”.

What does it really mean to put customers and employees at the top of our list?

As a therapist I’m reminded of Frankl’s Logotherapy, which is first and foremost a philosophy of life, basic human wisdom in practice. Logotherapy recognises that the most important of human desires is to find meaning in life and that this cannot be found alone, it needs involvement with others. Logotherapy suggests that meaning is found in exercising our capacities:

  • To create (what we give to the world and others)
  • To experience (what the world gives to us through its own majestic beauty and through our relationships)
  • To take an attitude to what is unchangeable, the rocks and shoals of life’s journey.

I will leave to others to explore in more detail what this means for customers. However, it certainly does not mean peddling overpriced goods that are manufactured for redundancy and which pander to consumers wants more than to their needs.

A recent book to help the workforce find meaning at work is “Find Your Why” by Simon Sinek with David Mead and Peter Docker. It is the practical side to implementing of Sinek’s earlier work “Start with Why”. There are numerous pathways to help identify and develop creative values. For instance “a WHY, by definition, ….. serves others and makes a positive contribution to their lives.“ (Perhaps a hint here at how meaning at work ensures customers are served as well). Sinek sees meaning in a service mentality: “ironically, people who find their WHY in service to others, rather than themselves, are the ones who ultimately best serve themselves, because in the end they experience the deepest fulfilment”.

This focus outwards beyond myself has been a challenge recommended to humanity for eons. “He who loses his life will find it” the gospels say. “Do not die filled with longing. To die filled with long is painful” says the Buddha. Logotherapy urges us not to confound the dignity of man with “mere usefulness”.

This brings us to attitude. As Sinek says “We can’t always control the environment we’re in, but we can take responsibility for the way we show up.“ Wouldn’t it be wonderful for any business to have employees that did this, despite the boss and even better if the boss took the same journey with them!

However I believe Sinek falls into the trap of peddling only inspirational positivity. A quick look at the index of the companion book “Start with Why” book explains that. There are many entries on inspiration, success, innovation but nothing on failure or pain or indeed suffering. And all of these are part of the human condition and all of these will be experienced by our employees. So finding our WHY with our people also means developing empathy and compassion for the rocks that they, and indeed our business and its leaders will encounter along the way. More of that for another time.

For the moment here are some dreams:

What if:

  • Executive salary incentives focussed on customer and employee satisfaction and not shareholder returns?
  • Corporations realised that meaning at work is more important than salary for the majority (56%) of their workers (Survey from Rise, consultancy in Australia June 2018)
  • Corporations realised that 70% of their employees believe that being valued at work would make them happier? (Survey from Rise, consultancy in Australia June 2018)

Dr. Paul McQuillan

Global Expert Partner

Dr Paul McQuillan is a Family and relationship Counsellor with Anglicare SQ in Brisbane and Consultant Coordinator of Research activities with Brisbane Catholic Education.

He is a member of the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values. His research interests include the spirituality of young people, a field in which he has published two books and numerous journal articles.