Are there really right and wrong organisations?

We really appreciate how much some of our clients care for us, and our reputation. Sometimes this extends to advice about who we should and should not work with, in terms of protecting our reputation.   

Views like this are probably borne out of a sense of concern and of course it is impossible to know if they might be proved right in the end. At the very least it causes a purposeful pause in a business like ours. 

In fact in our business, every time we think about working with a new client there is an opportunity to reflect on whether we feel comfortable building a working partnership. In conversations like that what becomes apparent is how each one of us has an internal process of actively developing a choice to work or not work with a potential client. 

Nothing is as simple as it seems. How do you really make a decision like that in an ethically ambiguous world? In an age of hyper connectivity it is actually difficult to find a solid place to stand free of any doubt. Pension investments, environmental concerns, the impact on indigenous peoples; the disparity of wealth and opportunity in certain communities, the decisions made in boardrooms that privacy can justify. How do you navigate your way through one person opting not to work for a client because they don’t feel comfortable about what that organization stands for, and in the same space accepting a bonus based on profits that may have been accrued in part by others in the team working in that organization? It is pretty complicated isn’t it? 

I have been reflecting on this for a few weeks now and I realize that there may be several responses to this kind of dilemma. Something that was widely reported from Davos and attributed to Otto Scharma is a statement in which he described many of us as sleepwalking into actions without realizing the consequences. I think there are a number of ways we can react to dilemmas like this, and they feel much more active than sleepwalking. My personal favourites from my own ‘reactive repertoire’ are: 

Righteous - broadly characterized by me having a rant about certain organisations and their ethics/products and services which imply that I am morally and intellectually far superior to that kind of behavior and I would not lower myself to be connected to it. (Sorry to my colleagues for putting them through this at least four times a year) 

Retrofit – making a very sophisticated argument about the complexity of systems leading to a very easy way to excuse myself from actively carrying the burden of a decision, but feeling the glow of having massaged my mind just enough to experience a sense of participation in a bigger conversation. (Read the first couple of paragraghs of this blog again with that in mind and tell me how I am doing!) 

Reduct – I deliberately (but not necessarily consciously) think of myself in isolation and that whatever is going on in other organsations is actually nothing to do with me, so if I stay away from the obvious things that cause ethical dilemmas I can keep it simple. I definitely feel better when I simplify everything down and can find a way to absolve myself from all of it. A classic statement that goes with this is, “I am not there for the organisation, I am there for the people”. (Still sounds good to me but leaves me with a real question about complicity) 

Joanna Macy who has thrown herself wholeheartedly into activism and change in our society coins a phrase about her work, which I think has real resonance here. She describes it as “the work that reconnects”. Fundamentally that is what is missing in my reactive repertoire. When I am righteous I am touching into indignence, when I retrofit I am touching into smart explaining and when I reduct I am touching into separation. Conversations about whom we work with could be full of these perspectives and concern for our reputation could fuel them further.  

What I am about to write may seem shocking to some who read this. Over a thirty year career I have worked with people who have murdered, displayed aggression towards children and others who have lied and cheated. I have worked with individuals who exhibit greed and suffering in their minds or bodies. And I am that person too.  Whatever we find to criticize in others simply allows us an illusion that we are different and separate. I have found that when I believe I am different and not complicit, I have no need to act, but I can feel better about myself. When I accept that I am part of the ethically ambiguous web of modern life, I view invitations to participate with people and organisations as a creative opportunity to increase consciousness and humanity. In other words I am trying to stay connected and to reconnect with organisations and people who are sleepwalking into consequences that affect all of us. 

In my Zen practice I often think of it as the practice of intimacy. I know it is not a word we often associate with our organizational life, but when faced with these types of dilemmas I have found it a useful perspective to calm my reactive repertoire (most of the time!). 

It makes three basic but challenging requests of us.

Request 1- Stop pretending you know and that your already worked out opinion is correct and sacrosanct

Request 2 – try standing in everyone’s shoes for a minute particularly the people or issues you find most difficult to associate with and move from judgment to curiosity

Request 3 – allow yourself to stay emotionally connected and actively challenge your assumption that you are separate and would never have behaved in that way or have made that choice 

Then decide………..

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Comment by James Hodgkinson on March 18, 2014 at 13:20

I really enjoyed reading this piece Claire, I can relate to the first three positions. I find that often my decision making process starts and ends with how my bank balance is looking at the moment. This subject has been topical for me of late as i have recently worked for the first time in Saudi Arabia. I do think that there might also be a degree of arrogance in my being able to accurately judge what organizations are doing right work and which are not.  I am fairy sure there is a bigger picture out there unfolding and that i cannot fully know what is happening and why.  At the same time, i think it would be inaccurate to underestimate the impact that I do have by being part of the world, all the time. and to ignore that responsibility would be to opt out. I find human beings fairly similar creatures in whatever organization i work with, and i try to connect with people as much as i can, understand them as much as i can, and do as much as i can in that moment. its very good to think about it... 

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