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Nearly every day, the news offers another headline citing corporate complicity in harmful actions that affect the environment surrounding them, the community and the industry they are a part of, and even their own employees. It has become commonplace for us to give corporations a life and will of their own. In the United States, the Supreme Court has given corporations personhood with concomitant constitutional rights. Yet we know, without doubt, that a company is no more than a collection of individual humans. From the C-suite to the warehouse, companies are comprised of human beings with free will, the ability to choose and question, and think critically.
As long as we focus solely on the corporation, we live in a world of anonymity, ignoring the reality that a responsible human being is behind every choice, decision, and investment. All too often, though, the headlines that align wrongful actions with companies create a sense that the imbalance in our work lives is the corporation’s fault. We lose sight of the individuals steering the ship into troubled waters, and we lack curiosity about the conditions, structures, and expectations that led them to chart a dangerous course in the first place.
Just as corporations and their leaders operate and exist in anonymity, so do we as individuals.
Each of us has agency, the capacity to make choices and enact those choices in the world. But so many of us move as tumbling tumbleweeds, acting without cause, not seeing our impact, just getting through the day. We live distanced from who we are, putting on the face we think others expect to see. It’s hard to contribute or collaborate when we have to concentrate on playing a role, accessing only parts of our whole being. This dynamic is harmful – to human beings and to the companies that employ them.
In ‘The Challenge of a Fraction’, we wrote that leaders who think and act as a fraction of their whole selves more quickly lose the ability to lead. Their decisions grow more myopic, often centered on the measurable outcomes of profit margins and growth in share value. They ride the waves of market forces, striving to command and control every variable to meet the demands of their shareholders.
We wrote, “Yet here is where the danger lies. In a contracted period of high pressure, relying solely on these ‘hard skills’ means that leaders operate as fractions of human beings. Increasingly, strategies become designed and delivered from a place that is devoid of empathy – for themselves, for others, and the world around them.” It is nearly impossible to create humane cultures grounded in accountability when we are disconnected from our own humanity and, as such, are not wholly accountable to ourselves.
We long to live and work as whole people, no matter our status or title at work.
Hubert Joly, CEO Emeritus of Best Buy, is lauded for the remarkable turnaround of the electronics giant. His winning strategy? He “unleashed human magic.” Joly and his team invited the humanity and desire of every employee, regardless of position or longevity, into the workplace. In his HBR article, How to Lead in the Stakeholder Era, Joly writes,
“For business to be part of the solution to our collective challenges, we leaders must see companies not as soulless moneymaking entities but as ‘human organizations’ made of individuals working together in support of a shared goal. This goal must contribute to the common good by making a positive difference in people’s lives — what author and consultant Lisa Earle McLeod calls a ‘noble purpose.’ In this approach, making money remains an imperative, but profits are not the ultimate objective; rather, they are the outcome of a successful strategy rooted in purpose.”¹
Joly believes that the focus of corporate leaders must shift from shareholders to stakeholders. Stakeholders include every person touched by the corporation – employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and shareholders. For some leaders, this can initially sound like anarchy. Yet, unless corporations free the strengths of all of their people, stagnation, frustration, and inertia are inevitable. Accountability to self, another, and others fail, and people make decisions from only a fraction of their humanity. And this behavior becomes the model – perhaps even the permission – for others to retreat, disengage, and hide behind the corporate veil.
The call to action in balancing corporate demands and human needs centers on creating cultures that enhance every human interaction – our internal interaction with ourselves, interactions with another, and others. To thrive today, corporations need every one of us to step into our agency, to act with every part of ourselves, not just the part we assume others want to see. Aligning personal identity with the work experience enhances a sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning in every leader, manager, and employee.
Every day, new research affirms that compensation, benefits, and performance reviews motivate us far less than often believed. Belief in a strong purpose, the ability to contribute, a sense of belonging, and work that aligns with our understanding of who we are, have far more significant influence. The reality is that how well people work is directly correlated to why they work.² MacGregor and Doshi cite the research of Deci and Ryan on the reasons people work. The researchers found that the most enhanced performance factors – play, purpose, and potential – all operate in direct relationship with an individual’s identity.
“Play is experienced when we are motivated by the work itself. The experience of purpose happens when the outcome of our work aligns with our identity, and we feel potential when the outcome of our work benefits our identity.”³
Our identity never leaves us. When our identity embodies, aligns, and grows through our work, we apply ourselves with passion and integrity. Even with all the advances in technology, the most influential people will be those who can connect a sense of purpose, what drives them at their core, with their work.
“The foundation or spark of this magic is to treat work as an essential element of people’s humanity and as a way of finding meaning and fulfillment in life. Start by asking yourself and people across your organization, ‘What drives you?’ — a question that I find rarely gets asked in corporate environments. The answer helps people discover a sense of personal purpose, which determines how they relate to their work,” Joly writes. “When I was at Best Buy, I always found the simplicity and humanity of people’s answers striking.”¹
We can lead where we are, regardless of title or position.
When we can articulate, codify and bring to life how we best operate in the world, we understand the meaning and motivation under our actions, decisions, and interactions. Guided by what drives us, we embody a natural self-confidence, resiliency, and consistency, and we have a strong call to action. Self-aware people possess an authentic curiosity about the experience of others and can successfully read, navigate and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Emotionally attuned and articulate about our purpose, what we want to create in and through our work, we elevate our personal motivation, performance, and conscious commitment and do the same for others. We can lead where we are and boost value creation for all stakeholders.
For thirty years, The TAI Group has been guiding people to step fully into who they are – investigating all parts of their lives, examining who they have learned to be, and celebrating as they reconnect with who they truly are at their core. Whole people cannot help but see themselves in affinity with others. They fully commit to relationships, grounded in understanding what they want to experience, communicating what they know to be true for themselves. As leaders, they are not hesitant to ask for what they need and take responsibility for understanding the needs of others. Rather than make assumptions, they ask questions and seek clarity. Their sense of what is negotiable and what is not is strong and clear.
Whole people, wherever they work, shift the culture by articulating what matters most, their vision of the company’s “noble purpose.” With clarity and specificity, they focus others on priorities that directly connect to that purpose, the work that requires each person’s time and attention. When there is a common ground of understanding, the path forward becomes clear – not necessarily easy, but defined, understood, and shared.
Whole people model conscious commitment.
We are in a rare and fortunate time for business. When trust is a scarce commodity globally, 2021 research by the Edelman Trust barometer shows that among four studied institutions worldwide – business, non-GMOs, government, and media – business is the only trusted institution, seen as both ethical and competent.
“When the government is absent, people clearly expect business to step in and fill the void, and the high expectations of business to address and solve today’s challenges has never been more apparent. The heightened expectations of business bring CEOs new demands to focus on societal engagement with the same rigor, thoughtfulness, and energy used to deliver on profits.”⁴
The issue of imbalance between the forces of corporate demands and human needs rests on the shoulders of us all. This moment calls for us to focus less on pointing the finger and more on our individual and collective responsibility to set things right. To do this, we will have to ask ourselves some hard questions.
- Why do we choose to keep our heads down and mind our business rather than ask questions or challenge the status quo?
- When do we hide behind the shield of the corporation rather than standing up for what is fair and just?
- What will it take for us to act as whole people, rather than the fractions we assume others expect us to be?
The call for whole people to take their place as models of excellent human interaction, for developing a conscious commitment to “a noble cause,” has never been more apparent. It is time for us to accept the compelling responsibility we have to our stakeholders – including our communities, and, indeed, to the world’s people.
This clarion call will require the best of each of us. We have learned that behind every harmful, unethical, or egoic behavior is a person operating as a fraction of themselves. But when we connect head and heart, we stop tumbling along, unaware, and act in congruence with our mandates and values. We live with greater empathy and embrace our responsibility to ourselves and others to work for the greater good. We make a conscious commitment to lead where we are and actively demonstrate the change we aspire to see.
About the authors
Gifford Booth is the CEO of The TAI Group. Christine Strong is the Chief of Staff and Consultant of The TAI Group. Keith Wright is the Growth Officer of The TAI Group.