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Compassionate Business

21 September 2009 No Comment

Much of the first part of my adult life was spent in and around business, including one of the largest professional firms in the world (it’s also one with, I think, the longest name in the professional world). I learned a huge amount and was a great period of my life. But ultimately there was something missing and it took me a long time to figure out what it was.

I still spend a lot of time around business people and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard them tell me they cannot be fully themselves at work, because that’s just not how business operates. I’ve heard so many laments about the work place lacking authenticity, compassion and love.

In short, the full range of humanity is rarely encouraged in the corporate world.

In ‘Heart of Business‘ I explored what might be some of the factors behind this and then I got to wondering in more detail what might a ‘compassionate business‘ look like?

Here’s what I came up with and I’d really like to hear your thoughts on it.

1   Purpose

A compassionate business is clear about its purpose and how it peacefully contributes to the world. Its actions are always informed by and measured against this.

Ask many people what’s the purpose of the business they work in and most will reply ‘making money’.

I just don’t believe it – it’s a myth we’ve grown up with. Many businesses have sadly lost sight of their purpose and how their existence benefits mankind as a whole. They’ve come to believe that it’s all about money.

Every successful and sustainable organisation has a purpose – a reason to exist – beyond the profit motive. If making money is truly the only purpose then I don’t believe a business will survive long. It’s just not possible to fool enough people for long enough that they’re getting something of value when they’re not. Sure, it’s possible to trick people long enough to make some quick money (maybe even a lot of it) but really, what’s the point?

It’s all about making the world a better place. It might be hard to find and may take some digging around, but I believe it’s there, lurking under the day to day pressures to bring in revenue and cut costs.

Long term success can only come when a business exists to provide value, makes people’s lives better, and serves some human needs without being at the cost of others. And if the business as a whole is crystal clear about it, then the day to day work itself becomes far more meaningful for those working inside.

2   Decision making

A compassionate business involves people in decisions that affect them.

For me it’s a fundamental human need to be involved and heard in decisions that have an impact on me. It’s one of the foundations of the democratic tradition many of us hold so dear.

Yet we’ve got used to being told what to do and to allow others to make decisions for us.

Dependency has no real place in the life of a mature adult. We expect to have a say in many areas of our lives yet put up with the opposite in much of our working lives. I think it’s habit and largely a relic from our childhood when we relied on our parents to decide (even then we didn’t like it much of the time). It appears in business as the myth of ‘boss knows best’.

Many businesses make some attempt to involve workers in the name of ‘empowerment’ or other such things. A compassionate business will open up decision making all the way and include all those affected by a decision. It doesn’t mean that decisions won’t be delegated, it doesn’t mean that difficult decisions will be avoided but it will mean the basic desire we all have for control over the direction of our lives will be honoured.

3   Hierarchy

A compassionate business will value equally each and every employee. Structure will be used purely as a functional tool to help order complexity.

I think we all want to be treated as human beings – with respect, understanding and an appreciation for the unique contribution we each make to the world.

In many organisations people carry a label and a place in a hierarchical structure. Often they get seen for position first and for their humanity second. The functional need for structure often gets mixed up with the ego desire for status and power.

The organisation I worked for was more human friendly than most. Even so I was treated very differently when my label changed (because of promotion) from ‘Manager’ to ‘Senior Manager’. My voice was listened to more, I had greater privileges, more money, involved in more confidential matters and more highly respected. I felt that I was more valuable and important – and was treated that way – yet I was exactly the same person. All that changed was one word attached to my name.

A label does give some indication of experience and breadth of perspective. ‘Senior’ indicated I had more of the big picture, was less involved in day to day affairs and internally could make more expensive decisions. It didn’t make me – Ian Peatey – more important or valuable as a human being.

A compassionate business will not only recognise people according to their experience, capability and breadth or depth of view – but value them equally as human beings. Hierarchy will be minimal and used solely for ordering the complex web of relationships and organisation.

4   Duties and Responsibilities

Things will only be done in a compassionate business if they serve a purpose, add value to the world and are done willingly and freely.

Most businesses operate around roles and job descriptions. If you do what your boss tells you, carry out your duties, fulfil your tasks and meet your goals then you’ll get paid. Do it consistently and you might even get promoted.

There’s little room in most workplaces to freely decide if you want to do something or not. In turn that probably means many activities are not done ‘willingly’ but done because ‘that’s what the job requires‘.

I often hear ‘ … but there are some things that just have to be done. If you give freedom to people then nothing will get done.

I have two responses to this.

First, yes, there are some things that need to be done that are not enjoyable. But most of us seem to manage quite well outside work to attend to these kind of things quickly and efficiently.

Second, I wonder how many of these things that are effectively ‘forced’ at work, are in fact serving life. My experience was many things I did were to feed the egos of those higher in the organisation or, more likely, were just a waste of time.

A compassionate business will liberate it’s workers from the ‘duty and responsibility’ mindset and will cull all activities that do not contribute directly to fulfilling the purpose of the business.

5   Competition

A compassionate business will compete to be the best that it can, respecting and valuing those with whom it competes.

Competition can be a wonderfully creative force to improve performance. It can also be a terribly destructive force.

As I see it, the key differentiation is the attitude I take towards my competitor. Destructive competition channels energy into winning whatever the cost and irrespective of the consequences. Winning is about beating the competition – making ‘the enemy’ lose.

There’s another approach to competition which is about channelling the energy into being the best I can. I use my competitor to help me measure how good I am and to raise my own game beyond what I would do on my own. Winning is about performing better than I did yesterday. It’s respectful to my competitor as an ally not as an enemy.

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