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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Is conscious business doomed? Quite the opposite…

One of the Performance Review Pro team was at the Meaning Conference in Brighton last week – a Conscious Business event full of people who want to make business more meaningful and kinder to the planet and the staff, while still making a fair profit. Speaking as someone who lives on this planet and is a human being, this seems like a good idea, but its critics maintain that business is business and that ‘Conscious’ might just mean ‘less controversial’.  Capital and Kindness are not the same thing, they say, so is conscious business doomed?

Happine$$ vs $$$$$$ - Performance Review Pro - Performance Appraisal Process

Well, in the blue corner we have the fat-cat capitalists, eager to flog every last inch of performance out of their wage-slaves; in what used to be the red but is now the green corner we have the old hippies, agonising about the morality of profit and going to such lengths to be nice to people that they fail to break even and end up going down with all hands. These two positions are inherently opposed to each other and anyone who says other wise is, as one reviewer said of John Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, spouting a lot of “well-meaning rhetoric” (hot air).

But this is an oversimplification – business has always involved compromise between profits and ethics, since the abolition of slavery at least.  In practice there is a continuum of differing approaches to business, with a harder attitude to profit at one end and more concern for employees at the other. The question for every business person is where on that spectrum to position your management style, given that each point has its own disadvantages.

At the end where the drivers are margin, efficiency and profit, people become part of the machine.  We make them work harder by threatening their job security (if there is a shortage of jobs or the work is simple) or offering them more money (if there is a surplus of jobs or rare skills are involved).  Carrot-and-stick, in other words.  The hope is that these ‘incentives’ will stimulate focus, engagement and productivity.  But they actually bring stress, disputes, anger, apathy, burnout and (if there are other jobs to go to) staff turnover.  So right now, as business is picking up, people who have been managing on this basis can expect to lose their best employees.

At the other end of the spectrum, where love and peace reign and fulfilling the conscious business dream should be easy, it is often hard to get anything done.  Democratic  decision-making is agonisingly slow, and it is impossible to tell anyone that what they are doing doesn’t work.  It’s just as well everyone is on an equal share of the profit (not that there is any) because pay negotiations would last until the end of time…

So, if you want to achieve a sustainable, profitable, ethical business, how do you decide where to compromise?  Actually, you don’t have to: you really can harmonise the needs and goals of the company and the staff.  You don’t have to beat people or bribe them, because intrinsic motivation is sitting there in each individual.  The same mechanism that powers voluntary, leisure and sport activity in home life is waiting for you to enable it at work.  When you do, your staff will work because they want to, and your organisation will do well, if your business model is sound.

Doing this involves aligning the culture, conditions and communications in your company with workings of the human. That is not just ‘well-meaning rhetoric’ because we can unpack it into practical steps which are straightforward to implement.  And staff enjoy this process because they recognise it as humane and likely to make work work better for them.

This does not mean applying the same changes to everyone – people need different things to different degrees, so you have to measure the need for change from their perspective to see how to enable each team member.  The appraisal or review is a rational place to do this – in fact basing your review process around this discussion is a fantastic way to make use of a process that can otherwise be a fairly negative experience for all concerned.

And so they will want to stay, and to make it work better still, for themselves and for the higher purposes of company, customer and planet.

Happine$$ - Performance Review Pro - Performance Appraisal ProcessSo it’s not a question of humaneor efficient; it turns out that humane is efficient.

The leader who wants to use Conscious Business principles has nothing to fear from the staff, or the market, if they are implemented in alignment with the nature of the staff.  And there is a good way to be sure you’re doing that – take a look at Performance Review Pro

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Conscious Business Conversations that Enable Change

What are the important characteristics of a Conscious Business?  In July about 20 of us met in Brighton to discuss this and to develop ideas of how organisations, particularly those that are small and medium-sized, can practically become more conscious and to use this awareness to improve what they do and to share experience with others.

For large companies there are many audit tools, quality systems and awards to choose from.  From personal experience I know that they can be worthwhile, but they can be very time consuming, bureaucratic and take valuable resource out of the company.  They can have complex ways to examine and put a number on what people do in organisations (ie what people value and how they work with each other to bring about change).  Paradoxically the very act of putting a number on these interactions eclipses the essential quality of those interactions they seek to shine a light on.  The aim of the workshop was to develop something straightforward and meaningful that small and medium-sized organisations could use.

The general features were agreed, a Conscious Business is: respectful, transparent, is fair, is involved in its  community, is authentic, is humble, learns, makes a profit, is ethical, is honest, pays tax and is aware mindful of the full  impact it has.  All of these are important, but without context of what actually happens in practice they can lack meaning.

At the workshop these were further refined into the following distinct themes.

  • Conscious about Profit
  • Social Value
  • Transparency
  • Fairness
  • Have Generosity

In order to bring these themes to life in a practical way we worked on: 1) concrete and everyday examples: 2) what are the two or three question areas that bring these themes to life.  These now feature in our Changing Conscious Business Conversations Tool. There are no metrics or scoring mechanisms in the Tool.  The focus is on having conversations.  These are conversations that relate to what people do in their organisation and how they relate to their environment, suppliers and customers.  Meaningful conversations, particularly with people who you wouldn’t normally speak with, enable people to notice what has not been noticed before and to understand their importance.  A few conversations and a page or two of notes can form the basis of an action plan to bring about change.  These notes and the action plan can also form the basis of further conversations with other Conscious Businesses with the aim of sharing what works and avoiding what doesn’t.  It helps to raise the consciousness of conscious business within the community.

The tool can be found following the hyperlink here.

If you are inspired to use this in your organisation we would very much like to fear from you – what went well, what could be improved, and most importantly the difference it made.


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The Illusion of Control

I’ve noticed that many of the times when I’m feeling most stressed are ones when I think life is out of control. Something inside me wants everything to be in order, just so – well perfect, if I’m honest.

But I’m coming to realise that I’m setting myself up for a fall if I think this way. The truth is, we can’t control everything.

If we think about conscious business, leaders and managers who act with both the belief that they can and the desire to create a culture of control will produce an organisation that has a tendency towards fear, rigidity, narrowness, and stagnation. Those they lead will not be encouraged to think, innovate, and express their concerns and hopes.

On the other hand, if everyone understands that there are limits to how much life can be under control, we shall see a more flexible, agile, and organic atmosphere pervading the entire organisation.

Now as an accountant, I’m not giving up on the place for appropriate controls. Good systems have their place but I’ve yet to see perfect ones. An awareness of their limitations will mean we are mentally better prepared to deal with the problems that inevitably arise from time to time.

Here are some thoughts I have had on how to cope with the impossibility and undesirability of control:

1. Think humbly – if we don’t chose to be humble, we may end up humiliated.

2. Accept uncertainty.

3. Concentrate on ‘right inputs’ if you can’t control ‘guaranteed outputs.’

When I deal with issues, particularly people ones, I’m learning to make the comments I feel appropriate (which may need to gestate for a while) rather than thinking I have to resolve everything immediately.

4. Have the mentality, “I’m trying to help people, rather than be perfect.” (My thanks to Paul Hopwood for that one.)

5. Be open – to input from others, to new ideas.

And I know I can’t control what you think about this. But perhaps as long as we are thinking a bit more, that’s better than living under an illusion of control.

 


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Do you think that this is a good question?

In times of uncertainty, many people long for definite answers and clear leadership.

There are times when such an approach is warranted, but history has shown that all too often after short-term gains, long-term oppression and regression arise.

If business is to become more conscious, it cannot be forced but must be evoked from within people. Pull not push. And if we believe that humans are both limited and ‘built for growth,’ we have to consider how these factors shape our approach to increasing such consciousness.

I think that key to this is the use of questions rather than the provision of answers. By adopting this method, we are helping each other think more. Hard work at times, but in the long term I’m convinced it will produce better results.

So a key issue is to learn to ask not just questions but the right questions. To do this, we must apply the ‘questions are more important than answers’ approach to ourselves. It doesn’t matter how good an ‘answer’ is, if it is an answer to the wrong question it is at best useless, and at worst regressive.

Let’s ask ourselves what evidence we have that asking questions is such a good way to encourage growth. Here are some reasons:

1 Coaching – the best coaching I have received has been when I have been asked questions. My initial reaction was, “Hm, I paid for answers to my issues not questions!” But as the wise coach persisted with questions, my own ability to think about possible solutions developed, and most importantly, my belief grew that I could think differently, take action and see some change in my situation and that of my business.

2 Knowledge v Wisdom. – we seem to live in a society that is rich in knowledge but poor in wisdom. I think that in good measure knowledge comes from an ‘answers’ approach, wisdom from a ‘questions’ one.

3 Socrates – one of the founders of Western philosophy, a major contribution of his was the Socratic Method, whereby a series of questions are asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. This is shown (at length…) in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is the questioning mouthpiece for the message of that work.

4 Jesus – Christians claim that Jesus was God himself. So surely, he would have the ‘answers’ and would give them to us. Well, he certainly did give some very clear answers, but the Bible records him asking people nearly 300 questions. If such an approach was good enough for him, …

5 Pascal – a great quote from him: “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room.” We want noise and answers, rather than quiet and questions.

6 Delegation – if done properly, this costs in the short-term, but pays dividends in the long-term. I have found Ken Blanchard’s situational leadership model helpful in thinking about management and delegation, and the use of questions is a key part of this approach, particularly at the later stages of development.

Apart from the Situational Leadership model, I have also found the following helpful in trying to become someone who leads more with questions:

1 Kipling’s six honest serving men.

2 Covey’s seek first to understand.

3 Read, read, read.

4 Expose yourself to new ideas by developing weak as well as strong links.

By continually adopting a ‘questions’ approach, we shall develop our own and other people’s thinking ‘muscles.’ It is harder work in the short-term, but will produce better results in the long run. It can also help us all break out of stuck thinking.

As Steve McDermott has said in one of my very favourite books (How to be a Complete and Utter Failure in Life, Work and Everything: 44 ½ Steps to Lasting Underachievement), the quality of our life will be in direct proportion to the quality and depth of questions we ask ourselves on a regular basis.

What do you think?