Citizens of the World
Actions must speak louder than words if businesses are to become a true force for good.
Quinetta Roberson is the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Management & Psychology at the Broad College of Business, Michigan State University. She was President of the Academy of Management from 2020 to 2021.
When we talk about business being a force for good there is a strong tendency just to focus on the business case for doing good. But there is an equally strong environmental and social aspect to the question, an equally strong human rights aspect.
The fundamental question that businesses actually have to ask themselves is how they can be true citizens of the world, because in 2022 organisations cannot just focus on financial performance but need to think more broadly about building wider capabilities. So how can they develop these capabilities that allow them to perform better and become true citizens?
A lot of my research has been around how you build diverse workplaces and inclusive leadership in order to make organisations perform better and become more efficient.
What I have found is that although companies talk a lot about diversity and inclusion and about representing people across all levels of their organisation and giving them the opportunity to excel, the reality is somewhat different.
In fact the research shows that all too often this focus is only on a narrow group of employees and doesn’t always think for instance about the people in the factories, the migrant workers, or those in vulnerable positions. It becomes over focused on white-collar positions.
As such, when I go into a company I always start by asking leaders what they are specifically doing to create a sense of belonging in their organisation. And if they then reply that they have various measures in place to achieve this, I ask them how they actually know it’s true.
In fact, the only way to really find out is to ask employees themselves whether they feel included. And nine times out of ten the answer that comes back is completely different. What that shows me is that business needs to involve employees far more in what it is doing. Incidentally these companies were often doing what they said they were doing. It was just that their policies simply weren't resonating with staff.
I always start by asking leaders what they are specifically doing to create a sense of belonging in their organisation.
So beyond engaging better with staff, what else can companies be doing to become true citizens of the world? Well, another step is to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. This might sound ridiculously simple but you might be surprised just how far companies can stray from this objective.
One of the reasons is that when people become leaders they are invariably promoted for being high performers in a particular role, not because of their great record at interacting with other staff. We rather blindly assume that they will practice more inclusive leadership now they have stepped up to their new role, but do they or us really know what this means in practice?
In fact, what tends to happen is that leaders go into a ‘leader mode’ and there is a tendency to put practices in place without really thinking hard about the actual enactment of that practice.
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A good example would be arrangements around flexible or hybrid working, an issue which has been catapulted to the top of the business agenda. It might be the case for instance that staff want to continue working from home more, enjoying the benefits of a more hybrid working life. But then managers might begin insisting that staff come in a set number of days a week.
In this example there is an obvious disconnect between what managers want and what employees want, so how do you square this circle? The simple question I would ask in this scenario is why do managers want staff in the office in the first place? Are they just enacting this policy for the sake of it, and if so why? Rather than just issuing a decree, let’s think more deeply about the nature of work. Let’s think about whether this policy is having a positive influence on society as well as on employees.
Another consequence of leader mode is setting goals, whether linked to carbon emissions, diversity targets or ESG for instance.
These can be all well and good, but what we also know from the research is that when companies are forced to hit specific targets they simply manage that target. In other words, the focus should not be on giving businesses a specific goal per se, but more on giving employees goals which will help them achieve those top-level goals.
For instance, a company might have ambitions to have a more diverse working environment, but are they creating an environment which will actually sustain a more diverse workforce? If they are not doing the latter, then the end goal is simply not going to be achieved because the people they want to attract and retain will leave.
Organisations therefore need to think about the different ways in which they can achieve their goals, think about the optimal paths. I would add that business schools themselves have a role to play in this discussion because students are too often taught to find the correct answer rather than wrestle with the real problem. In fact, there may often be multiple right answers.
Also, there is a tendency to talk about leadership as a monolith, that all leaders are the same and have similar experiences and starting points. To this end we send people through leadership development programmes, but that assumes everyone is starting from the same point when in reality they are often not.
Time to stand up
At this time of multiple global economic, social and political seismic shocks, I believe there is an opportunity for organisations to really say what they stand for. But they need to be authentic, consistent, and follow up their words with actions. How they reimagine themselves is actually a really good way of thinking about these questions. It is about turning the lens on themselves and thinking about how they are going to change.
Here in the United States you hear a lot of companies talking about their commitment to social justice, but all too often they don’t even have equity within their own organisations. So the message becomes incongruent with their actions.
We see the same with investors who will talk to me about how they are ensuring that their investments are socially responsible. But what you invariably find is that the focus remains on the leadership of the company and about how they can diversify the board. They are focused on the outcome rather than the process. If they really want to embed these things in, then they have to take meaningful actions, just like businesses themselves.