‘Bitzer,’ said Mr Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, ‘have you a heart?’
‘The circulation, sir,’ returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, ‘couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart.’
… ‘but I am sure you know that the whole social system is a question of self-interest. What you must always appeal to, is a person’s self-interest. It’s your only hold. We are so constituted.’
I was reminded of this episode in ‘Hard Times’ while reading Gillian Tett’s column in the FT this weekend. She outlines two views of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. One view is that companies should engage with CSR because many societal problems are too big to address without the help of corporate muscle, and that companies have had a big impact in some cases when they have been involved (she cites the impact Coca-Cola had when it started battling Aids in Africa). The other view is that societal problems are for governments to tackle and the fact that companies are looking at these issues is a sign of government failure.
Having just chaired a panel of business leaders in Davos, Gillian is able to report that CSR is growing in strategic importance because of the failure of government but also because global stability is under threat from issues such as income disparity. Income disparity is an issue for companies because it deprives consumers of spending power. Should self-interest, such as the need to counter income disparity, drive CSR programmes? This is the question that brought Bitzer’s utilitarian comments to mind.
The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow touches on these issues in the book ‘Maslow on Management’ . Maslow talks about the importance of the far or long term goals and values of an enterprise and how the continued health and profitability of an organisation, over the long run (i.e. 50 to 100 years), is dependent on utopian, ethical and moral goals. It is a question of having a purpose that your employees can get enthused by, develop towards and work together to achieve. A quote from T.K. Kurien, head of Wipro, in the FT article illustrates the importance of the far goals of an organisation, “Young people in India used to be happy to have a job. But now they are aware [of social issues] – they don’t want to work in something such as defense, but [in] something like health”. Well know examples of utopian long term goals are Facebook’s mission “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” and Google’s mission “to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
Maslow’s presciption for companies could be described as self-interest too, but of a different character, where the permanent goals and values of the company have a connection with societal issues, in contrast to a more short term approach i.e. let’s deal with income disparity today as it’s going to impact our viability tomorrow. Maslow stated the management challenge as “how to set up the social conditions so that the goals of the individual merge with the goals of the company” , and he stressed that personal development of employees is key to long term success, “if the long run is taken into consideration, hard-headedness and tough-mindedness and profits and all the rest of it absolutely require considerable attention to what we might call personal development“. In Maslow’s view, long term corporate success requires moral and ethical far goals, alignment between employee goals and organisational goals, and a focus on personal development.
If CSR programmes are delivering benefits to society, that is to be applauded and the reasons for these programmes are arguably not so important. But maybe a CSR programme linked to genuine company goals is an opportunity to engage employees and deliver superiour benefits to society and the company. It’s almost 150 years since Dickens hit out at Utilitarianism. Which companies will be around 150 years from now and which will have had the biggest impact on society?
I prefer to avoid learning too much about films before I see them.
When Jean-Pierre Darroussi, the lead actor, appeared pre-show to state baldly that we would not find anything to laugh at in this film, I started to wonder if I had made a wise choice for my evening’s entertainment.
Early One Morning starts with Paul, a banker in his 50s, arriving in his workplace and gunning down his boss and a younger colleague who was threatening his position. Through a series of flashbacks the film explores what has brought this man to take such a desperate act.
The proximate cause is straight forward enough. With the banking crisis underway, Paul’s employer BICF has brought in new management to squeeze more results from the operation. Paul’s results are poor and he comes under pressure. Once a high flyer, Paul is now sidelined to a low status position and routinely humiliated by subtle and less than subtle mechanisms of corporate politics. For example the new boss invites Paul to boardroom meetings at inconvenient times, only for Paul to arrive, flustered, to an empty room.
The root causes are of course more interesting. Leaving to one side the question of what has created a corporate machine capable of chewing up and spitting out someone like Paul, the film focuses on Paul’s story and his choices. Paul has given everything to his career, neglecting his family and friends to the extent that he has nothing to fall back on when his work life falls apart. We are shown glimpses of what could have been. Paul’s family life had been better in the past and he and his wife did charity work, supporting a family in Mali and building a school. In scenes of Paul building the school he is completely engaged in the work and a picture of satisfaction.
It seems that Paul had important values that he suppressed through his single minded focus on his high status job. Rather than seeking to live his values in his work, it seems that Paul was seduced by the effortless rise through the ranks earlier in his career (and the status and money that went with that) and failed to ask the question, ‘Is this work intrinsically satisfying for me, is it aligned with my values?’.
This is a story about how a man was driven to desperate measures by a ruthless corporate machine, with unenlightened management and a corrosive culture, but it also shows how some of the responsibility for what happened is shared by the protagonist who failed to live a life true to his values.