Organizational leaders must be more vigilant than ever in fostering a balanced environment that is receptive to all respectful perspectives. The consequences of failing to do so can lead not only to strife and dysfunction but also to the loss of critical opportunities that are often aimed at fostering diversity, workplace fairness and wellness, community engagement, philanthropy and environmental stewardship.
While not a new phenomenon, political division seems more pervasive than ever, in part because it has saturated our news media, social intercourse, entertainment and yes, even our workplaces. The latter manifestation is dangerous for many reasons, including because of power dynamics in the workplace that can lead to unfair pressures against – or possibly ostracization of – those who lack power and do not conform to the mainstream sentiment within the organization. Less obvious, but equally troubling, is the danger of important workplace initiatives being blocked by mere accusations that they are politically motivated, even when they are not.
Making the Apolitical Case
Concerns about organizations playing politics are not unfounded. There undoubtedly are organizations that adopt policies because, at least in part, they are viewed as politically expedient. Nevertheless, future-oriented organizations that are focused on mission delivery and their own longevity and success understand the need to decouple personal politics from their objective business needs. Only then can they be freed to evaluate – and do – what they believe is in their best interests. The three main apolitical arguments supporting pragmatic social and environmental causes in the workplace are as follows.
1. Be net positive.
Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, and Andrew Winston, renowned author and speaker, recently wrote a book called Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take and a complementary article called The Net Positive Manifesto. Their work challenges organizational leaders to consider the “megatrends” of our world and then ask themselves one central question in that context: does their company give more to the world than it takes? They argue that “net-positive” companies:
- Improve the lives of everyone they touch;
- Take full ownership of the social and environmental impacts of their business models; and
- Partner with just about everyone, including competitors, to drive transformational change.
In effect, this construct encourages organizations to focus on diversity, workplace fairness and wellness, community engagement, philanthropy and environmental stewardship as opportunities to address the trends we face and, in doing so, make a positive difference in the world. Such a focus can then be framed not as political but as consistent with and supportive of the missions of most organizations around making positive contributions to the world, while also appealing to the very human desire to create a meaningful legacy.
2. It’s about sustainability survival.
For those organizations that require a more pragmatic, but still apolitical and important, rationale for focusing on the world’s social and environmental issues, there is the urgent matter of long-term survival – not just of the global social fabric and environment in which they operate but of the organizations themselves. BCG’s Martin Reeves has argued that businesses should look to biological systems such as the human immune system for answers as to how to be resilient and endure for generations. One of the characteristics of the human immune system and other robust biological structures is “embeddedness.” The immune system, for example, knows that it will not survive if the host in which it is embedded, the human body, does not survive.
So it is with resilient organizations. They understand that they are symbiotic with the economy, society, governmental construct, communities, and environment in which they operate. They understand that by doing their part to solve the problems that surround them, they are supporting their own survival. They also understand that if they fail to do their part, they may suffer the consequences, not only as the world around them becomes inhospitable but also from current and prospective customers, suppliers, business partners, and employees who insist that the companies they work with and for take the world’s problems seriously.
This understanding – a nod to embracing “interdependence” – will only become more important as changing demographics and environmental problems accelerate in the years to come. In this sense, popular terms like “stakeholder capitalism” and “compassionate capitalism” can be acknowledged not as a threat or alternative to fundamental capitalism but as a natural stage of its evolution.
3. It’s good business.
Lastly, for those organizations who prefer a more myopic rationale for fostering diversity, fairness and wellness, community engagement, philanthropy, and environmental stewardship, it is just good business to do so when the motivations are sincere. Again, customers, suppliers, business partners, and employees increasingly want these things from the organizations in their lives – and for good reason.
Greater diversity, for example, is sometimes seen exclusively as a goal aimed at addressing current and historical injustices. Yet, it also can be seen as a goal aimed at ensuring diverse perspectives, ideas, and experiences that are critical for any successful organization. As Martin Reeves argues, diversity, along with embeddedness, is yet another key feature of successful systems: “Diversity is … the substrate for evolutionary learning and adaptation to new situations, which increases strategic optionality.”
Consider also the power of community engagement and philanthropy in this context. If the communities in which an organization operate are the main source of its customers, suppliers, business partners, and employees, does it not stand to reason that supporting those communities is just good business? In the book Small Giants, author Bo Burlingham looks at several successful businesses that intentionally have sought greatness in ways that are not limited to size. He notes that the companies he examined all benefitted by creating connections within their communities and even making their employees, customers, and suppliers feel like they were part of their “family.”
In an era that may one day be defined by its political division and dysfunction, the important challenges of our society cannot be left to the government and nonprofit sector to address. Business organizations must also do their part – not for political reasons but because they seek to have a positive impact on the world, ensure their long-term survival, and enhance their very strength and success as businesses.