The perpetual balancing act between selfishness and selflessness, or self-interest and group-interest, is evolutionarily fundamental. So much so that it has been described as “The Paradox of Being Human.” Thus, while I have written about it before, I have not stopped thinking about it and it remains integral to everything I do. Recently, I have been seeking a way to portray it more effectively, and, in the spirit of “a picture being worth a thousand words”, more graphically.
“Mine!” Who hasn’t heard a young child say that? The concept of ownership is one of our most primitive senses. Indeed, I once read that the difference between North American and South American history, (both colonised around the same time) could be attributed to the encouragement of land ownership stimulating the greater development of the North.
Be that as it may, you would have some difficulty arguing against the idea that ownership is an integral part of capitalism. The concepts of limited liability and the lasting, legal persona of the corporation would not have been possible, or nearly as successful, without distributed ownership and the amelioration of risk it created. So much so, that you might even argue that ownership is the heart of capitalism. Which is why it is strange that so little has been done to make employees owners. Even stranger – and certainly ironic – is that efforts to encourage this are sometimes seen as socialism!
In fact, making your employees co-owners of your business has to be the ultimate in capitalism. Why? Because it also gives them a stake in the outcome. This makes it more personal. It gives them the pride of possession. Now, instead of simply being ‘servants of the organisation’ they become ‘partners in our organisation.’
In 1991 Charles Handy concluded that the basic purpose of an organisation is to perpetuate itself within the context of the environment in which it operates. You might not have thought about it in quite that way, but that conviction encapsulates and drives everything you do as a business leader. It shapes the way you think, the way you act and the way you expect others to think and act. That’s perhaps inevitable, but nonetheless spelling it out provides food for thought. Not least because it demands a long-term outlook.
Most business leaders will plead that they are thinking about the long-term and will cite all their strategic planning efforts as evidence of this. Yet, notwithstanding this, there seems to be increasing consensus that focus is too much on the short-term. All too often corporate failure seems to come as a major surprise: whether after a long-lingering painful demise that drained energy and resources, without achieving anything and failing to avoid the inevitable, or suddenly, as with the failures that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis. This is subjective territory and open to discussion beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that we need a more effective way of addressing the longer-term measures of organisational performance.
Here too Handy once again gives us some pointers as to how. He said, “The companies that survive longest are the ones that work out what they uniquely can give to the world not just growth or money but their excellence, their respect for others, or their ability to make people happy. Some call those things a soul.” I call it ‘Love at Work.’ But whatever you call it, it stems from people – your employees, your customers, and your suppliers – and the way you treat them – and Science supports this!
“Fortune favours the bold.” Or, perhaps Queen Elizabeth I’s legendary rendering of the sentiment as “Faint heart never won fair maiden”, may be more appropriate here. But, whichever statement you prefer, it’s true. After finally unveiling 'Love at Work' after hesitating for several months, I now question why I did. The response has been entirely positive.
That is not to say it has been overwhelming, but perhaps that is hardly surprising, if you fail to see the benefits immediately apparent. So let me take this opportunity to try to explain 'Love at Work' in a way that I hope will get you as excited about it as I am. The diagram should help, even though it does take some explaining.
The idea was novel. It had promise. It was exciting. Yet part of me still baulked. “People won’t take me seriously.” “I will be ridiculed.” “It is too alien: no businessman would be interested.” Those were just some of the doubts that paralyzed me.
Continuing with the recent theme of leadership and the question of whether or not you are a good leader, here is something else you can do to find out. Ask yourself, “Do I focus on value?”
That might seem like a very strange question. Your instinctive reaction may be to shrug it off and say “Of course!” But I urge you to probe a little deeper. You may recall Oscar Wilde’s line that, “A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing!” Unfortunately cynicism seems to be a trap that many business leaders can fall into all too easily. So it may be useful to take a good, honest look at yourself, your behaviour and your thinking, to be sure that you haven’t inadvertently fallen into that trap.
Continuing with the last week’s theme and pursuing the subject of leadership and the question of whether or not you are a good leader, another area worth assessing is your organisational well-being. Is this a topic you ever consider and, if so, to what extent? Ideally you will regularly be asking yourself:
- What is the state of our organisational well-being?
- Am I doing enough or could/should I being doing more to improve it?
Yet you are perhaps unlikely to be doing so. Why? Because there does not even seem to be any generally accepted definition of organisational well-being!
Change is an integral part of life. So much so that we are often completely unaware of it. We simply wake up one day to the realization that something familiar isn’t quite the same as we thought it was.
We experienced a good example of this over the Christmas holidays, visiting our young grandchildren for almost a month. As you would expect, the children we met on the first day were very different from the young children we had last seen. More surprising, however, was how much they changed during our time with them. It wasn’t only that, even after a couple of weeks, they were so proficient at things they couldn’t do when we arrived. Nor was it just the delicious festive food that made them feel heavier. We were sure that they also grew physically!
The fact is change is continuous. In the 21st Century, however, we are perhaps more aware of it than ever, and the fact that – due to the massive technological advances – the pace seems to be faster and the demands on us more urgent. So much so, that ‘change management’ has not only become part of the lexicon, but a recognized skill and much sought after competency. But are we being misguided?
You probably know that, if you put a frog in cold water and slowly heat it, it will eventually boil to death. This fact was popularised by management guru Charles Handy in his 1989 book, “The Age of Unreason.” But, even though you know the parable, do you ever stop to think about it, its implications and its relevance? After all, Handy must have had a reason for telling it.
“Mine!” “No! Mine!” How often have you seen that scenario play out? I certainly found it a recurring theme over the holidays as I watched my two very young grandchildren play. And I would guess that 95 out of 100 initially happy games that ended up in tears, did so when such conflict arose. Even when it wasn’t about direct ownership, it was about perceived injustices over “turns” or temporary ownership of a particular activity. The concept of possession thus seems to be a deeply ingrained in our culture from a very early age.
Whether this is good or bad, is actually irrelevant. Less materialistic cultures, such as the San people of the Kalahari, suggest that it is possible to have a culture without ownership and consequently with considerably less conflict. This, arguably, makes ownership the Pandora’s Box that seems to be the price we pay for civilisation and something that is almost impossible to discard. Indeed, you could argue that ownership underpins capitalism, which, historically, has been responsible for the world’s major economic development.
Yet, even in commerce, ownership is a root of contention and conflict. You only have to watch “Dragon’s Den” or “Shark Tank”, with would be entrepreneurs pondering an investment offer to see this.