Here’s an example of GREAT WORK: a teacher saw the future that kids coming out of prison might have and quit her job to do something about it.
Principle #4 from Great Work
It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.
If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.
—Warren Buffett, billionaire philanthropist and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
While it’s true that you can’t go bankrupt trying to do good in the world, there are all too many situations where people are tempted to do the wrong thing just for the money. In my experience, living by the principle of never letting money get in the way of doing the right thing built our credibility and brought us goodwill. In the long run, these actions often paid off in one way or another, or the sacrifice to our time and business were minimal. It became a principle we referenced often.
Unfortunately this principle gets bent if not broken in organizations all the time, even if you set aside disasters like Enron, Worldcom, the credit-default-swap debacle and the Bernie Madoffs of the world. Often it’s much less clear-cut, but the diminishment of integrity and trust is just as real.
- Juggling numbers—Top executives or sales managers manipulate numbers to get good bonuses at the end of the year.
- Take the money and run—Companies accept tax breaks as economic development incentives and then move out of town to a cheaper market or richer incentives.
- Dysfunctional incentives—In 1992, Sears got in trouble for creating incentives for their auto service advisors to sell services the customer didn’t need. While it can often be a good idea to share profits with employees, you have to be careful not to set up situations where employees and managers are subtly encouraged to defraud the customer.
- Substandard work—Supervisors pass off substandard work, hoping the customer or quality assurance won’t notice.
- Conflict avoidance—Managers give decent performance appraisals and standard raises to employees who don’t deserve it to avoid uncomfortable conversations.
- Malicious Obedience—Employees follow orders even when they know it’s not the right thing to do.
A recycling non-profit organization was struggling to decide what to do about a partnership they had developed with clothing recyclers. Jill, the executive director was finding in her research that the business model was misleading and she was getting increasingly concerned. But the strapped non-profit got a nice check every month. Since I was on the board, I was privy to the discussions. At one point, I asked, “If all this came out in the local paper, would you be embarrassed to be part of this? Would it look bad for the organization?” Jill was quick to answer yes. “Then we need to get out of it ASAP. It’s not worth it. We’ll make up the money someplace else.” She and all the board members looked relieved. You should run your business as if everything could get published on the front page of the newspaper. It’s a good question to ask if you’re not sure what is the right action.
At AXIS Performance Advisors, we often encountered murky ethical situations. Do we give the customer what they asked for or what we think they need? If the client asks for something we haven’t done before, do we take the work and hope everything will work out or do we admit our weakness to the client and work together to find a stronger solution? Do we only do work that we are paid for or do we still take on projects and research that needs to be done but no one is funding?
By committing to never letting money get in the way of doing the right thing, we developed several approaches.
- Referring work to other consultants who could serve them better or partnering with other firms when we could better serve the client.
- Giving back to clients and the profession by doing work without pay or at a significant discount
- Refusing to make the sale and give the client what they ask for if it’s not what they need, even when you really need the money
Excerpted from Great Work. This was included in an article called “Confused by Social Responsibility” published by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals.
Many organizations in developed countries struggle to understand what social sustainability has to do with them. They assume we’ve legislated out of existence many of the problems associated with social injustice: slavery, child labor, racial discrimination, unsafe workplaces, etc.
Business owners throw their arms akimbo, thinking they’re done. While it’s true that many of the most egregious social offenses seem to occur outside the industrialized world, those of us in the so-called developed world may share more responsibility for them than we care to know. In addition, there’s a risk that we have become blind or inured to our own special violations and can’t see the dysfunction we’ve created in our own backyards.
We need love, and to ensure love, we need to have full employment, and we need social justice. We need gender equity. We need freedom from hunger. These are our most fundamental needs as social creatures.
—David Suzuki, Canadian scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster
You’ve undoubtedly heard the Brundtland Commission definition of sustainable development: meeting the needs of the present while ensuring that future generations can meet their own needs. Sounds fine but what exactly does that mean? Defining social sustainability can be tough. We need a way of defining what a healthy society is. One approach is to base this on research on human needs.
Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist, along with his colleagues researched the human needs that were consistent across different cultures. These same needs, Max-Neef found, showed up despite different social norms, conventions or locations. The way we satisfy those needs, he concluded, is what defines the differences from culture to culture. So his model helps us to see past our differences and understand what is at the core of human behavior and motivation.
Nine human needs—Max-Neef identified the following human needs:
Not a hierarchy—Max-Neef’s list is not hierarchical like the one Maslow hypothesized. One of Max-Neef’s insights is that a deficit in meeting any of these needs is a type of poverty that in turn generates pathologies. Some are obvious. Certainly if you don’t have enough to eat (subsistence), you have hunger or starvation. In babies, the lack of affection leads to what’s known as “failure to thrive,” sometimes even leading to death. If you don’t have enough leisure, you become a workaholic who suffers from stress and stress related maladies. But it’s also true if people don’t have enough opportunities to influence matters that affect them (participation and freedom), they often get passive aggressive or even aggressive. In organizations, you will often see ‘malicious obedience,’ as one of our colleagues coined it, disgruntled employees doing exactly what they’re told even though they know it’s not the right thing to do.
Not substitutable—Another of Max-Neef’s insights is that these needs cannot be substituted for one another. If you compensate for a lack of affection with food (subsistence) you have another well-recognized problem: obesity.
These needs are all important for a healthy human being.
Four realms—Max-Neef also identified that these needs are manifested or met in different ways: being, having, doing and interacting. From these dimensions, a 36-cell matrix emerges. From a sustainability standpoint, we want to find synergistic ways of meeting these needs while at the same time contributing to a healthier triple bottom line.
So now that we know what people need, how do we use this information to assess our social sustainability? In organizations, we need to ask two questions:
- First, do no harm—In what ways are we undermining these needs for our stakeholders?
- Second, make a positive difference—How can we contribute to meeting these needs in a sustainable way?
Based on concentric spheres of influence, there are four broad stakeholder groups to consider.
- Employees (and the labor pool) in the workplace
- Customers of your products or service
- Members of the community in which you operate.
Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.
And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.
Excerpted from Great Work
When we lived in small tribes and bands, each person had a role in that society that emerged from their personal attributes and talents. One might be a warrior, a healer, or even the gifted storyteller/historian. Everyone had a ‘job’ without a job description, a source of meaning and status.
As civilizations emerged, we needed different ways to organize ourselves to create a functioning society. Clans and trades were formed. Roles became more specialized.
Now many of us live in cities with millions of others. Unlike in our tribal past, the person passing you on the street has no idea who you are or what you can do. Instead of hunting and gathering, we go to ‘work,’ to our ‘jobs.’
Some people think they just work to make money so they can go live their real life. But what a waste of your life’s energy, given that you probably spend 40 or more hours a week doing it. True, some people are desperate so doing menial work is a survival strategy.
Even jobs that some consider mundane can have meaning; even “flipping burgers,” a phrase often used to imply meaningless work. When McDonalds Sweden adopted sustainability and The Natural Step in the 1990s, the employees felt as if they were on a mission to save the world: eliminate waste, source organic potatoes and milk, and turn fryer oil into fuel. In the abstract, any job can seem mundane. Basketball is just putting a ball through a hoop, and football/soccer is just getting a ball past a goal line, but the players and fans attribute much more meaning to it if they are part of something much larger.
A funny thing happened when we actually communicated this [mission of delivering happiness] to our employees. We found that suddenly employees were a lot more passionate about the company, a lot more engaged and when customers called they could sense the personality at the other end of the phone wasn’t there just for a paycheck, but really wanted to provide great service
and when vendors came into our offices of visited us they wanted to stay longer and visit more frequently.
—Tony Hsieh, founder of online shoe retailer, Zappos
What if we thought of organizations as the primary way in our modern society that we…
…CONTRIBUTE OUR GIFTS/TALENTS TO SOCIETY.
Excerpted from Great Work.
Before I started AXIS Performance Advisors, I was a director of a small national training company. The president, Alan, wanted to update the vision and mission. So he shared with me what he had written. I can’t recall exactly what it said, but it was basically, “We exist to create quality and profitable training programs for the utility industry.”
I told him that didn’t seem the slightest bit inspiring. “It sounds like we are basically in business to make you money. No offense, but that is not what brings me to work. Training is just a means to an end. What gives me juice is to make a difference in someone’s life.”
I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.
—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist/cosmologist and science communicator
I went on to tell him about a young woman I coached briefly. She was petite, soft-spoken and desperately shy. Unfortunately, she was going to have to give a presentation to a national trade association of her peers where we couldn’t count on her even having a microphone. And each time she started her presentation, the moment she made the slightest mistake, she covered her face with her hands and turned to the screen. She and her teammates were leaving for the conference in a few days.
So I started coaching her. “Turn around! Keep going,” I demanded from the back of the room as she struggled through her presentation. I took her outdoors into a large field and had her give me her presentation as I walked backward away from her. “I can’t hear you! Use your diaphragm.”
I shared my best tricks for managing nervousness in presentations: what not to eat or drink, how to control what someone says introducing you so it’s easy to get started, how to engage the audience as if you’re having a conversation, and how to move your body to expel excess energy.
She was improving but I had to be sure she could handle the inevitable distractions at the conference. “It can be hard to keep your focus when people get up and walk out,” I warned. So we simulated a conference setting. We got about a dozen people from her department into a room set up conference-style and they were directed to be disruptive. A minute or two into her presentation, a pile of books hit the floor. Then someone simulated a coughing fit, and others in turn stood up and walked down the center aisle as if to leave. She finally handled these distractions reasonably well.
Time was up; they had to leave, so I wished her and her team well and crossed my fingers.
To make a long story short, she nailed her presentation. Her poise surprised her team as well as herself; and her content was well-received. She came back a different person. No longer meek, she had found her voice.
And I knew I had made a lasting difference in her life. She would never be the same. She’d carry this new self-confidence the rest of her days.
How can my work make me a better human being and make a better world?
—Dr. Govindappa Ventkataswami, founder of the Aravind Eye Clinic
“That’s why I do this work,” I told Alan. “I want to make a difference in people’s lives.”
In the end, he rewrote the vision, “Helping people make a difference,” recognizing that as a training company, we wanted our participants to learn how to make a difference in their organizations through our training.
On the face of it, that doesn’t sound like much. But it transformed our business. Suddenly sales representatives had a story to tell, not just products to sell. They could tap into the emotions and aspirations of their clients. We often referred to the vision in meetings: “Will this really make a difference?” It coalesced everyone from the receptionist to the trainers, the sales people and top management. We all shared a common vision. And I don’t think it was coincidence that we started to become more profitable.
So wanting to make a real difference in the world or in people’s lives can improve the image and productivity of your organization.
On TV recently, I saw a segment talking about how Detroit didn’t have streetlights for awhile, due to their bankruptcy, but that now the city was brightening back up. I understand the need to feel safe at night, but now that I live in Sedona, one of a handful of Dark Sky communities, this news hit me wrong. We are celebrating the wrong things.
We have lost so much of the natural sky that during 9-11, when all the planes were grounded, people called emergency services, wondering what had happened to the sky. Without all the contrails, the sky was blue! There were more stars at night!
Having a dark sky is not just a benefit for star gazers. The excessive ambient light wastes energy, screws up bird migrations and undermines our health by messing with our circadian rhythm. According to the International Dark-Association,
Prolonged disruption of the circadian rhythm has been linked to sleep disorders, obesity, depression, diabetes, and an increase in the growth of cancer cells, specifically breast cancer.
About 30 percent of outdoor lighting is wasted, but even dark sky fixtures result in a certain amount of light that is reflected back into space.
In Sedona, we’ve learned to carry a flashlight the way I used to carry an umbrella in Portland. Only the major intersections are lit at all. Our neighborhood has a string of low-voltage lights along our streets and we’re encouraged to leave our house lights off at night unless we’re expecting guests.
What you can do
- Use Dark-Sky compliant outdoor lighting. (Places like Home Depot and Lowes carry them.)
- Assess how much light you really need to be safe. Put in low-voltage lights or unscrew a few.
- Get rid of any mercury-vapor or similar lights or at least put a shield around them so all the light goes down, not out and up.
- Turn off outdoor lights when you don’t need them.
- Advocate for your community joining the growing list of Dark Sky communities.
Former climate skeptics: I want an apology.
I know it’s petty of me, but I want an apology from all those people who have been denying climate change for the last several decades. Especially old friends and family who used to look at me with that infuriating there-there expression one would give to an overwrought child. Now they say, “Oh, yeah, climate change. Gosh, it’s terrible. Something should be done.” Notice the passive voice.
Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “First, they deny it. Then they say it conflicts with the Bible. Then they say they’ve known it all along.” I guess that’s human nature, our tendency to reinterpret our past to fit our positive self-image.
But recently we have heard that we have already past the tipping point regarding some impacts we have been warning about. A chunk of ice in the Antarctic, so large it exerts a gravitational force on the ocean around it, will inevitably melt, raising sea levels by 10 feet by 2100. In about 85 years; not centuries. Now they are begging us to protect Greenland, lest the ocean rise 30 feet. Oyster farmers in the Pacific Northwest are finding the ocean has gotten so acidic that their baby oysters can’t form a shell. Communities are being destroyed by record-breaking heat, drought and floods, and super-storms. Thomas Friedman has tied the conflict in Syria to climate-induced water problems that set off the revolution which has killed over 100,000 people. Just wait till the permafrost melts.
Thanks to climate deniers’ skepticism, political choices and inaction, we have lost decades when we could have been heading this off. It would have been so much easier and cheaper to head this off in the 1970’s. So much more humane to billions of people who live on the edge and to our children and their children.
How could we humans have been so blind? So selfish? And when did ‘sacrifice’ become a four-letter word? My father sacrificed in World War II to protect my freedom, and I had not been born yet. What would we have had to sacrifice? Maybe pay more for energy, travel a little less, forgo strawberries in December, live closer to work? Hardly Omaha Beach.
Every age has its primary challenge. Creating a sustainable society is ours. Unfortunately climate change is only one symptom. We also need to address synthetic chemicals in our bodies, invasive species, water and air pollution, and species extinctions. These too are a result of a few bad design choices our society has made. But all these will be more challenging in a changing climate.
Had we acted sooner, we could have addressed these challenges without much sacrifice. Sustainability shouldn’t be about not having what you want; rather just making sure you are getting it sustainably. So when political consultant Mary Matalin says, “Don’t tell us we can’t drive our SUVs,” she’s really saying “I don’t want to believe in climate change because it will be inconvenient.” I say, go ahead, drive your SUV, but buy carbon offsets so you can be climate neutral.
But now I don’t think we can avoid sacrifice, not just for the Syrians or the latest community hit by a monster tornado. Everyone will be affected.
So at least say you’re sorry. Be a bit contrite. Come to the scientists and sustainability experts now and say, “Tell us what we must do.” And then do it!