Is it possible to create a culture where individual, selfish actions at the same time are altruistic and benefit the culture we are part of?
What is our ethical norm?
Imagine we are working at an organization that is cutting corners by giving small gifts to state officials or is employing child labor. Would we call such an organization unethical and exploitative?
Apparently it depends on if we are part of that organization or not. Clearly, from an outside perspective it is unethical and morally incorrect to bribe and let children work. Such a behavior needs to be prohibited. However, if we are part of that organization, then such a behavior is suddenly the daily norm. If we do not know of any alternative behaviors and if such actions are further encouraged by supervisors or financial incentives, why should we question what we are part of and maybe do ourselves on a daily basis?
Culture vs Personality
Ruth Benedict has studied the influence of culture on our personality and she comes to the conclusion that they are interconnected. Socialization, our contact with other people, constructs our own personality patterns by shaping our behaviors, thoughts and norms to fit into the culture we are part of. And since we are a social species there is certainly a lot of socialization going on.
In addition, Benedict sees similarities in cultures and individuals and describes them both as a “more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.” She emphasizes our free will by stating that we as well as our culture choose from “the great arc of potential human purposes and motivations.”
Benedict also states that every culture has “certain goals toward which their behavior is directed and which their institutions further.” Her most important discovery is, those goals of different cultures “are incommensurable.” This means that they cannot be compared, which is described as cultural relativism. If we want to understand any culture we have to understand it holistically. We cannot simply judge a certain behavior, but we have to understand what motivates it and how it is constructed within this specific culture.
The Case of Enron
It is the story of the seventh largest U.S. company going to bankruptcy in less than a year. Enron was a Natural Gas Company that turned into a market-to-market trader, meaning that the company’s assets are valued on the potential benefit they could bring in the future under current market conditions, rather than valuing these assets based on how much money was actually spend on them. Beneficial for Enron was the deregulated electricity market of California as well as the accounting firm Arthur Andersen authorizing their dubious and aggressive accounting standards. Enron for example build new gas plants and put their potential benefits into their accounting books. When the actual profit was less than the accounting value, the not realized earnings were not depreciated, but sold as risks to Special Purpose Entities (SPE). Enron had created more than hundreds of such SPEs that were funded by equity investors, which allowed it to hide its debt.
A similar pattern was observable in the banking crisis in 2007.
However, at the core of these behaviors was a culture of greed, which was highly competitive and where the lowest 15 % performers of the company where fired annually.
Who is to blame in such a scenario? The individual employees that took action, the organization that created such a culture or the state that allowed such practices to take place?
I would like to leave the answer to the American court and instead look at what could be learned from the case of Enron or the financial crisis. Surely, the prevailing culture had an influence on the behavior of the individual. However, these two example show just one extreme of the potential outcomes, which could be described as selfish actions of individuals to accumulate wealth. A small group created funnel mechanisms where wealth attracts more wealth with the result of exploitation of labor and excessive profits. It is a zero sum game, where one has to loose in order for the other to win.
What if it would be possible to create a culture where the selfish actions of individuals are actually benefiting everyone else?
High synergy cultures
“The society with high synergy is one in which virtue pays.” – Abraham Maslow
Maslow described cultures with high synergy beautifully and on point. To him synergistic cultures “are social institutional conditions which fuse selfishness and unselfishness, by arranging it so that when I pursue ‘selfish’ gratifications, I automatically help others, and when I try to be altruistic, I automatically reward and gratify myself also.”
In such cultures it is made sure that wealth is siphoning between its members. The most giving members are actually those that are the most admired. The more power we give away, the more we get. In a culture with high synergy the virtuous business man is profitable. In fact, pursuing own interests is benefiting everyone else.
High synergy businesses?
Can the principle of synergy be applied to organizations?
Organizations can create cultures with high synergy. I have actually worked in an organization where the individual benefit equaled organizational benefit. The organization put the individual human being into the center of all their business activities. It was ensured that members had a high learning curve, could grow personally and apply their strengths, which resulted in satisfied customers that received valuable solutions. Thus, the organization benefited as well. Not only was this design and experience beneficial for the individual, but it also resulted in profitable and sustainable benefits for the organization.
High synergy societies?
So far we only looked at the culture within an organization and its interdependency with its members inside that organization. Can an organization also have high synergies with the society it is part of?
By taking a larger approach than simple maximizing shareholder value, it is possible for organizations to create high synergy with all its stakeholders. In essence we are asking if organizations can have the same synergy with stakeholders as it has with its members, which is described in the previous section. This question could also be asked in a different way, namely: Can organizations be human? This is answered in another post, where we look at the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of Corporate Citizens.
We already touched upon bringing value to customers. This can be achieved with providing products and services that are linked to the underlying needs of people, an approach that is called human-centered design.
The produced products and services as well as any kind of behavior from an organization should not harm the environment or the social system that is living on our planet and has a relation to the business. The basic principles for a sustainable development have been described in the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development.
What selfish action would you take that helps humanity?
This post was inspired by Ruth Benedict’s ‘Patterns of Culture’.