Is Your Company Ready To Make The World A Better Place?

Humanizing workplaces, fostering sustainability, and increasing engagement are noble causes. They’re just not enough for employees if the company itself is a little evil.

"What are we going to do together to dramatically improve the world?"

I ask this of everyone I work with. I’ve reached a point in life where I can’t not ask. Leaders in giant multinationals, promising startups, and critical government agencies have the power to make inspiring planetary change, yet that’s often the last thing on their minds. It’s time to bring the world back into focus.

For nearly a decade I’ve been in the business of fixing organizational folly. Several assignments have had a James Bond feel. None have required fast cars. All of them have involved cool technology. Most messes stem from leaders treating people (employees and customers) like disposable commodities, rather than ingenious assets.

Applying the principles of complexity and neuroscience to organizations that look more like octopuses than pyramids, I get the job. By rigorously removing friction, systematizing distributed networks, and refining corporate culture, I improved the work-lives of several million people and the bottom lines of some of the world’s biggest brands. Then I jumped off the cliff.

For all the time I’ve spent on making workplaces more humane, I’ve overlooked the monsters in our midst. Large companies increasingly employ destructive practices in the name of corporate profit. Very few executive strategies look at the total cost of business impact and commit to restoring the natural and human resources spent along the way. Many leaders feel powerless (or too busy) to think about what they should do. What they will do. And that won’t do.

After spending my summer with scientists, business leaders, artists, technologists, and philosophers considering if there might be a fundamentally different way to be in the world, I began a reconnaissance mission on saving the world.

I wondered if asking leaders to re-imagine their part in creating a healthful world would elicit defensiveness or blank stares. Could the finite game, where a few win at the cost of everyone else, be reworked to be an infinite game where we all can keep playing? I discovered people across industries, demographics and incomes relaxed their shoulders and looked relieved that someone finally asked. It seems many of us are ready to work on the long play. Are you?

Few people view their work as directly leading to a tumbling world, yet amid such disrepair can all of us be blameless? Even I’d thought "not me" until a friend said he wished I wasn’t so good at my job. He blew my cover and exposed me as potentially prolonging the death of some large corporations who we might be better off without. There’s plenty of opportunity for all of us to acknowledge our part. This is me owning mine.

So how will you answer the question? As a business leader or a concerned citizen, what will you do? Here are three big ideas.

1. Reduce corporate greed with a workplace-evil offset

If the benefit of working for a company with less-than-stellar ambitions is that paychecks don't bounce, you have opportunities to advance, amassing power and good health insurance, would you please at least offset the karmic cost? Recycle your skills to level up the planet. Find ways to supplant your vocation with your avocation whenever you can. If you’re a data scientist, join DataKind to connect with non-profits in need of data analysis and visualization. If you’re a wiz at creating marketing plans, find your local timebank and offer your services to your neighbors. What comes easy to you could be game changing to someone else.

2. Free your mind and your ass will follow

Many of the roadblocks in our path to doing world-changing work are between our ears. Sometimes they’re in the behaviors of the crazy or lazy people around you. No matter whose mental model you battle, you’re in charge of your thoughts. Learn to meditate and lead calm amid chaos. Remind yourself you’re resilient and that people are wired to thrive. Rather than join in, find ways to hack the system or play along well enough to stay employed until you find something significant—because you will.

3. Ask for better from the world around you

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle shows that change creates change. When I ask large consumer suppliers, blissfully aware of their dirty deeds, when they will improve the world, they point to the good they think they are doing which they judge is enough. Besides, they say, nutrition doesn’t sell as well candy and caffeine. The American people, they believe, want to live dangerously. But you don’t have to. Stop dinking around the edges. Make educated choices about what goes into your body and habits control your life. You can’t change everything, but each of us together can change the world.

Dave Duffield, CEO of Workday, guided PeopleSoft with eight rules of business behavior. The first rule was "Keep the Restrooms Clean." It was his nonstop reminder that we’re all in this together. If any of us walked away from the sink with a water line across the front of our clothes we were annoyed. Our coworkers had been sloppy at your expense. Take care of the little things and people will begin trusting you are capable of taking care of the big things.

As the socioeconomic epoch we’ve lived in for over a hundred years draws to a close, cracks in our systems widen and we're presented with an opportunity, and perhaps a necessity, to do something profound. We now have the technology and connections to come together in new and powerful ways. As Hillel the Elder wrote in Babylon, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

[Image: Flickr user Martinak15]

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  • Aaron Silvers (@aaronesilvers)

    I'm haunted by the question posed before, "What am I living my life in service to?" I think what haunts me particularly is the notion that, like anything, there are no fixed responses one can abandon to trust; rather, the dedication to make the world a better place is fluid, and how that dedication manifests into actions must be dynamic -- bridging the moment we're in and the moments we'd like to make possible, certain only in the direction and embracing uncertain outcomes.

  • Nikki Simmons

    As usual your articles are mirroring my thoughts. I've talked to several people this week that are in emotionally toxic work environments that are a indicator of the toxicity of their company's core business and business model. So toxic that they are frozen to inaction--- they won't quit, they can't move ahead, they stagnate. And this spills over into their personal life. So you certainly got my attention when you said, "Find ways to hack the system." I'd love to see your write about more about this idea. How can we change the culture from within?

  • Erik J Lindstrom

    It amazes me just how little we pay attention to our actions and what affects that has on our environment. A majority of people go around and do things with no thought of how it impacts the world around them. Oscar Wilde once said "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing". After more than 130 years, with all of the progress we have made, it's crazy to see how this quote still holds true. We need to start changing things and start taking responsibility for our own actions.

  • Clark Quinn

    Good stuff. As an independent, my company is my work, and I try to bring in good principles on every engagement. But even simple things, like voting with your dollars, can help. Support companies that are good for the environment, build meaningful jobs, don't tromp on social values, and more.

  • trchandler

    Love the personal accountability message throughout, and I can't wait to use "Free your mind, and your ass will follow" at work when coworkers start complaining about uncontrollable obstacles in their way. Nice post!

  • Joel Getzendanner

    Very thoughtful… and thought-provoking… Thanks!

    Business school taught me that "every business is fundamentally a financial instrument for its investors." (Yes, Univ of Chicago…)

    It took me a long while to learn how profoundly that assumption can play on our personal choices as business people.

    Now, I try to ask myself every morning, "What am I living my life in service to?" A financial instrument? An idealistic cause or creed? (Often not much better than the former!) Or am I living my life in service to people (and their grandchildren!) and a planet full of life? That is, something that tangibly matters by the end of the day.

    At the end of the week, I'm pretty happy if I've answered that well -- maybe 50% of the time. I'd feel better about myself if I could say "more than 75%."


    p.s. I find #2 above inspiring… Thanks again.

  • David Grebow

    I worked with Marcia at PeopleSoft and the bathrooms really were everybody's business. I also grew up learning that I needed to leave the campgrounds cleaner than I found them. One more thing: The future has not yet happened.

    Despite reality being contrary, good people with a passion for the right ideas can change the world. It's all about who we let create the future. The only future we inherit is the future we choose.

    Stay focused and find others like Marcia and start to conspire to inspire. We just need to remember to remember that ultimately, it is what we all decide to make it.

  • BillKutik

    Perhaps I am too cynical.

    Need I go on? When you check into a hotel room and see the card offering not to change your sheets or towels do you ever think the chain is truly trying to be more gentle on the environment? Or is it just trying to save money on laundry and housekeeping?

    Having just returned from a user conference on Workforce Management (on the simplest level, employees punching in and out of work) with an emphasis on catching those cheating for 15 minutes, I fear 19th-century capitalism is still alive and well.

    Companies need to stop treating employees as fungible cost-centers and start investing in them like valuable assets before they can step up to treat the world better. Don't you think?

  • Ronald Hildebrandt

    Well put Marcia and a much needed jolt to my comfort zone that I am on the "good" side of the equation working in the wellness industry.
    Reality is, being in a "good" industry is not enough (and may even help justify some bad behaviors) and that everyday / we need to challenge ourselves to ensure our good vs. evil balance sheet leans the right way. Being mindful of this responsibility at the corporate and individual could change the world. This has given me a few ideas on how. Thank you Marcia.

  • John Stepper

    "It’s time to bring the world back into focus."

    It's so obvious - so *necessary* - and yet so rare for firms to have this perspective.

    Have you ever read "Presence" by Peter Senge, et al? It's a wonderful, wonderful book that explores the themes you bring out here. When firms are disconnected from their surroundings (physical, social, cultural), they become cancerous, pursuing growth at the expense of their host environment.

    So many examples of this and so few counter-examples. If there's a tribe of people like you embracing the different approach you allude to, then I'd like to be a member. There's a better way for companies to work and act and create value. We need to help them find and implement that way.

  • Hal Richman

    What Marcia is talking about is also relevant to small business.

    We worked for two years to create a social enterprise with the intent to revolutionize the residential renovation/building industry in Canada via providing the education and training needed to develop workforce competencies. The “why” behind this is that “It’s not OK to waste energy.”

    The business model behind the social enterprise did not attract investors or attention. We then started Blue House Energy to develop online education in building science and energy efficiency for tradespeople, renovators and contractors. Our initial intent is still in tact – the focus is on deep energy savings and providing many people with the “primo education” needed to do the “right things right” (as Deming says). However, when dealing with R&D, course development, investment and everything else you do in a start-up I do at times lose heart. I then need to come back to the intent to remind myself "why" I am doing this.

    And then magic sometimes happens. We found ourselves in Irvine, CA several weeks ago at the Net Zero Energy Summit with a number of large organizations that really do wish to revolutionize the residential renovation/building industry in the USA and Canada.

    P.S. Cleaning the washbasin really does work. I have been doing this since Marcia told me about this 15 years ago.

  • Adrian Bridgwater

    ... and then a decade later when the rest of the world caught up to Marcia and realised that she'd said some of this stuff a ways back - very insightful, but almost too soon for some companies to hear, which may be part of the problem.


  • Greg Lloyd

    "After spending my summer with scientists, business leaders, artists, technologists, and philosophers considering if there might be a fundamentally different way to be in the world, I began a reconnaissance mission on saving the world."
    Bravo Marcia! Doug Engelbart would smile.

  • Greg Lloyd

    "For nearly a decade I’ve been in the business of fixing organizational folly."

    Smart to choose a market that's been high growth for the last 5,000 or so years!

  • TonyLoyd

    Marcia nails it. While it might be important to find meaning in your work, it is more important to bring meaning to your work.

  • bruce tizes

    for children, i suggest we teach and practice empathy and sympathy. it will not take too long for them to grow to adulthood. for adults, let's all try to be of modest, humble service to people we meet. recharacterizing 'good' as profit allows free market forces to generate more good (i do not mean recharacterizing profit as good). we do not need an evil offset so much as the ability to find and elevate good within corporate and individual behaviors. courteous behavior maintains the social margin in densely packed urban areas... an increasingly important fraction of humanity. identifying and targeting the 10 or 20 most important global issues, and instituting serial manhattan projects populated by the extremely talented will work. in connection with that, breaking down information silos and inventing a common lexicon is low lying fruit.