Hard business decisions: choosing the lesser of two evils
I credit C.S. Lewis with the concept of the arrogance of help. It’s the idea that the mere statement of saying “I’m here to help” carries with it an air of superiority. Who are you to think you can help? I faced this in my twenties working with street kids in New York City. One of my jobs was to screen celebrities who came to our door to offer their help. I quickly learned that if they came because they wanted to give back, they didn’t stick around for long. But if they came because they needed to for selfish reasons, it worked out well for them and our kids.
This comes to mind when we see corporations jumping on social bandwagons of good causes and political trends. It’s become a popular, if not essential, element of doing business. This is particularly true now with employees, especially the younger workforce, expecting their personal values to align with their employer’s values, missions or products.
But there is a hitch. As my wife and I learned very early on as parents, each succeeding generation has highly attuned bullshit meters beyond the preceding one. It might be nature’s way of compensating for our eternal hopeful and easily manipulated human frailty.
Business Decisions: Sincere or opportunistic?
This honed ability to judge intention is a challenge for business leaders. How can they contribute to a cause or help solve a social challenge without seeming to be opportunistic? The founders of Airbnb come to mind. How are they able to attach themselves to current emergencies like the influx of homeless refugees from Afghanistan running from the Taliban and not be judged as manipulating the moment? When Airbnb jumps on board, we see it as sincere and heartfelt.
I have to admit, Airbnb aside, I find myself questioning intention when I see corporate leaders speaking to injustice or contributing to causes that require nothing more than their money. Or when they jump on a socially or politically popular topic that carries no repercussions. Too easy, I think.
But Airbnb is different. Why? Could it be that they have spoken up on divisive topics in the past? Or have been willing to align with unpopular positions knowing there would be a price to be paid? Or could it be as simple as the issues they align themselves with are naturally connected to their products? Full disclosure, I had the privilege of working with the Airbnb founders in the early years, and I know their hearts. Their support for social causes is 100% sincere.
3 Step Guide to Pass BS Meters
Here are a few suggestions for corporate leaders feeling the pressure and maybe the legitimate desire to be of help without having to face the brutal repercussions of generational BS meters:
- Spend time on clearly understanding your company values. Question how they can be applied to the wider world in addition to your parochial need to generate shareholder returns.
- Find causes that authentically align with these values. Fight the urge to stretch beyond your values in order to leverage a popular social or political moment. Your PR and GR folks will struggle with this.
- Be careful how you promote it. Let the people who care find your gift of time, money, and energy versus you feeling the urge to widely promote it. Again, your corporate leaders tasked with this will push back.
The bottom line is this, we all have a responsibility to be socially responsible. We all need to step up. And most of us do. But corporate leaders face scrutiny that, while unfair, is real. They ignore it at their own peril.
Remember, this scrutiny is based on an underlying societal bias reflected clearly in a quote by the Brazilian business leader and social innovator, Ricardo Semler.
“If you are giving back, you took too much.”