Social responsibility and the liberated company: duty or self-interest?

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The new concepts of participative and progressive management, which advocate social responsibility and the fulfillment or even the liberation of the individual, are enjoying a great success and enriching their proponents. The aim is to save the planet and whilst ensuring that mankind prospers. The responsible and liberated company has become a cult for certain proselytes who are endeavoring to sell us ecstasy or bliss, so much their aim is to propose, decide and impose the salvation of mankind, its fulfillment and happiness as value. Is the company the right place for this profession of faith?

The issue is a sensitive one, because how can we oppose the supposed moral conscience of certain organizations and denounce the efforts of companies that impose upon themselves virtuous practices and seek the happiness of their employees? Isn’t saving the Planet and enabling people to thrive in the workplace a duty that applies to everyone, in particular to company directors? Isn’t it only human to want the happiness of others when you have the power to help achieve it? Challenging virtue means running the risk of being thought a cynic, a dubious or even an awful character. Is it serious and commendable to blame others for wanting what is good? It is not a question of denouncing anything, but rather of asking ourselves whether the company is indeed the disinterested place for such humanist work. For an organization whose purpose can only be to generate added value, is it not inappropriate to claim that it is seeking to save the planet or free people from the chains that bind them, from the hell of other people and from themselves? To claim that a capital-intensive company may be moral, is to want it to manufacture and sell products and services out of duty, where, if we are being honest, we should understand that it does so only out of self-interest and fundamentally because it is required to. That is its reason for being. Replacing this reason by some kind of moral order is essentially futile. It is clear that a profit-making company has never sold a product out of duty, but always out of self-interest, something that should be welcomed.

The production of added value in capitalist systems for the last century and a half has significantly contributed to increasing wealth and living standards and, by the same token, freedom. Capitalism as a techno-scientific and mathematical order – in the meaning given by Pascal – is the economic order that has brought most freedom to the peoples and societies that have applied it and benefited from it. All other organizations, in particular egalitarian organizations, have failed as soon as they were applied to populations that went beyond the narrow circle of the tribe or village. Marx predicted the end of capitalism toppled by the proletariat, but it was socialism – as a doctrine – that came to an end, except in a few distant countries where, it would appear, the liberation of man is not their main focus of attention. Alekseï Stakhanov died in the mines when the USSR collapsed, he did not survive the praxis. “Changing the world is all well and good, but how do we do it?” asked Marx. It seems that socialism does not have the answer.

Corporate social responsibility

The Chief Design Officer of a US multinational of bodycare products recently explained the ecodesign approach that had prevailed when removing the cardboard outer packaging from a consumer dental solution product. The aim was to review the shape of the bottle, its ergonomics, its cost, the image conveyed by the material, the facing, the graphics and all the information appearing directly on the product, as it was no longer possible to include an instruction leaflet. Removing the box meant avoiding the destruction of thousands of trees, he explained to a room of admirers. How can we not admire his commitment to saving us from futility and mismanagement and to protecting the planet? His intervention was in the context of a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) approach. This approach involves, among other things, making the company’s actions part of a virtuous circle of responsibility towards the environment and a response to the challenges of sustainable development. Eliminating over-packaging effectively means saving acres of forests and the approach is virtuous.

However, to the question “How much did this initiative cost?” he replied that he had, on the contrary, saved the company a lot of money and helped to portray the company in a positive light to consumers. But was the approach then guided by responsibility, duty or self-interest? Would his approach have been the same if, by chance, he had caused his employer to lose money or market share. The answer is obvious. Similarly, large hotels are now asking their customers to please ensure that they re-use bath towels on the pretext of saving water and reducing the need for polluting washing. Duty or self-interest? Social responsibility or smart management? Both, of course, and so much the better. But, which objective takes precedence over the others when it comes to fighting competitors, adjusting prices, improving competitiveness, conveying a good image, satisfying shareholders, and above all, attracting customers. Are we then justified in thinking that the social argument is only a marketing ploy, and proof of good management, which will result in more and better sales? Of course it is!

The primary responsibility of a company is to generate added value.  Making people believe that their actions are guided by duty is vanity. What should we think of a car manufacturer who boasts the virtues of their electric model and all their efforts to combat pollution while, on the other hand, continuing to sell high added value diesel 4X4s? Conversely, how can we blame a company whose fundamental duty is to fulfill the needs of the market? It is the market that we need to blame, because it is the market that is lacking in morality. Isn’t meeting needs and satisfying them virtuous in itself? The company always manufactures, produces and sells out of self-interest. The added value produced, provided that the work is consistent with moral values, is a virtue in itself. The company’s primary social responsibility is to generate it. If we want companies to take care of the environment, we must first make them competitive. Without the ability to generate added value, there can be no salvation. All sensible business leaders will tell you this. So then what about the environment, sustainable development, virtuous action to save the planet, what about social responsibility, since everything is only self-interest? Should we throw out CSR with the bath water on the pretext that wanting to insert morality where there is no morality would be a sham? No, if its objective is clearly to generate profit. Because, it is a great lever for redesigning the company, for making it evolve; for making it reflect on the issues of environmental awareness and its market and how it manages its teams; uniting employees around innovative projects by giving meaning to their actions. Especially as the changes that are forecast will lead to people asking lots of questions, or even resisting. Change is always a cause for concern, unless it gives hope, values and meaning.

CSR is an opportunity for the company to adapt its products to rapidly changing demand. More responsible companies and individuals will demand cleaner, safer and more sustainable products. It is up to the market to become responsible and to politicians to direct the major societal changes appropriate to the challenges of saving the Planet. CSR is a profit driver. Would there be so many organic products on the markets if they did not generate more added value and give hope to livestock breeders and farmers in Western countries crushed by industrial conglomerates and mass distribution? The idea of a CSR adapted to farmers who want to save their farms and the jobs they provide is perfectly virtuous. But, making people believe that their goal is to save the planet or to make us eat better does not hold water, except perhaps for a few idealists and other impostors.

Companies must change, adapt to globalization, to digitalization and to all the radical changes taking place in their environment. But above all, they will be forced to carry out an in-depth review of their marketing. No more unnecessary consumption, replaced by rational consumption, no more product life cycles because no more market renewal. Consumers will be transformed into contributors to the society in which they want to live. They will increasingly participate in the production of the products and services they provide themselves. Ecological awareness is on the move. What will happen to companies that base their model on market renewal when it is no longer reasonable to change dishwashers, cars or photocopiers every 3 years and we are entering an era of sharing and frugality? The consumer product industries, in order to ensure their future, are preparing to move from the production of goods to the production of services, failing which they will cease to exist. The pretext of societal responsibility has the merit of encouraging companies to question themselves about these changes and their long-term future. This is a market issue, an issue of added value and produced wealth which, once distributed, should provide a little more happiness to people around the world, if, that is, politicians agree to distribute it more equitably.

CSR is a wonderful way to generate added value, and this is what is virtuous. We must take care not to confuse duty with self-interest. Toyota does not make hybrid cars out of duty, but because the ecological awareness of its market is emerging and it represents a tremendous economic opportunity.  There is nothing immoral about all this and let us not seek virtue and morality where there are none. Toyota creates millions of jobs around the world, which is a good thing

Liberated company

Another concept in the same progressive vein was born almost 30 years ago. Let us say rather that it includes a number of old management theories that place responsibility, motivation, autonomy and collaborative work at the center of any operational organization. In the 1950s, Douglas McGregor*, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, already told us about the value of involving individuals in the results of their work so that they become collaborators and contributors for the greater benefit of the companies. In 1993, Tom Peters (who had already written a best-seller in 1983, “In Search of Excellence”) published, as if it were a new concept, “Liberation Management”. The liberated company is in opposition to, one would imagine, “the chained company”, a totally constrained, enclosed, dark and dusty structure in which colleagues are only employees without a project, without hope, disembodied, alienated, crushed by the hierarchy, disregarded, tormented perhaps, without the right to make their ideas known and express themselves. No one dreams of working in these prisons. Here again, the opponent of the virtuous concept is caught in the trap of wanting evil, given that the liberated company is so representative of the ideal of good. So, long live the liberated company and to hell with disputes. Beyond the intentions of the preachers who sell us the concept of management that makes people happy, the expression “liberated company” is unfortunate and it is surprising that its zealots have not realized this, unless they are confusing the role of company director with that of guru. Living in societies without God or Marx for so long, it is tempting for some to take advantage of the void to try to play the role of demiurge who, it is claimed, wants to guide you along the path of goodness and happiness. Here too, is the company a place for professing one’s faith? Because claiming the Company is liberated and repeating it like a mantra inevitably imparts the notion that going to work every morning for the company that employs you, is a way for you to free yourself of your chains. Corporate social responsibility would in that case be a way for mankind to free itself from its condition. With the liberated company, there is no doubt that Sisyphus would roll his stone down the hill and thus give meaning to his life. After the planet, it is mankind that the company wants to save. The claim is naive, even ridiculous, for anyone who believes it. It is absurd and a sham, except for some self-proclaimed management or cognitive and positive psychology trainers who find that this concept helps them make a living. Some even go so far as to promise happiness, as a result of goodwill, co-operation, teamwork and free speech. They talk about a human-sized company, of making things grow, empathy, ethics, morals, virtue and consideration, and cite examples of small and large structures that succeed by applying the methods they have sold them. As if business leaders had not understood, many years ago, that tormenting employees and depriving them of meaning and autonomy were detrimental to added value and that joint effort and teamwork, provided they are motivated, increases their resonance and therefore their efficiency. If, at the end of a concert, only one solitary spectator stands up to applaud, there is little chance that the orchestra will come back, if on the other hand lots of people stand up, then it will come back. When empowered and motivated, spectators spontaneously know how hard to clap. When the objective is clear, it has meaning and also the means to achieve it.

The liberated company is also a flat organization. Let’s raise a hue and cry against hierarchy, long live meetings in games rooms, around sandboxes and aquariums where everyone, freed from their status, is invited to express themselves freely. Let’s decide together, collectively and democratically. Is this a serious attitude to adopt when we understand that the company is a crossroads of conflicting interests and that the role of the boss is to take decisions on controversial issues? Management has a number of virtues – that of administering and leading, that of deciding and, also, that of encouraging employees to advance up the ladder. It is a formidable means of motivation, recognition and respect. Of course, too much hierarchy undermines fluidity and leads to its victims being submissive, but if we destroy hierarchy then we destroy competence, expertise, recognition and the tool for legitimizing decisions. It is not the hierarchy that must be killed, it is all the little bosses. Whether we like it or not, using the phrase liberated company inevitably leads to the idea that work sets you free, which is detestable and false, except perhaps in the mind of tragic, unsavory leaders for whom egalitarian ideals and re-education through work justified all manner of atrocities.  In the case of the company and its objective of profitability, it is completely inappropriate. Maybe work sets you free when it is chosen, but who could claim that company workers have chosen their jobs? It is important to be humble in this area and to accept that for the vast majority of individuals, work is first and foremost an economic necessity. Once the problem of the name of the concept has been removed, what remains of the liberated company? That it is better to work in good conditions, than in bad ones, that it is better to work with others, rather than against them, that a good idea needs to be shared in order to be developed, that we must always surround ourselves with more intelligent people than ourselves, that we need to be attentive and respectful, that responsibilized and responsible employees perform better than those who are neither, that autonomy is a formidable motivating asset for those who know how to use it and who have the intelligence to not abuse it. All this is blatantly obvious and, for a century now and since the school of human relations, many management theorists, from Elton Mayo to Crozier via Peter Drucker, have already spoken about it. Their teaching is more serious than that of the gurus who claim to be making people happy.

Why is now all the talk only about CSR and the liberated company, including in every business school, whose mission is to teach people how to create wealth and money? Because the aim is to find meaning, find something sacred at a time when God, love, Marx and others no longer fit the bill. We are experiencing a tremendous decline in morals (replaced by law), a decline in the values of the sacred (for which our ancestors sacrificed themselves). God, the homeland and all the “isms”, beliefs for which people were willing to lay down their lives. Perhaps now only the family is still sacred and it is clear that societal developments are gradually moving to ensure its disintegration.

The company cannot, of course, replace this loss of meaning, to suggest that it can is a mistake. It does not save the planet, nor does it make mankind free. Its objective is not moral or immoral, it is amoral. It is about generating wealth which, once shared, will allow individuals to meet their needs. That company bosses take care of their employees, and make their task as comfortable and as rational as possible, is the least that they can do if they claim to be good managers. And good managers make sure their companies win.

All the sociological, economic, ecological and technological contexts are now being turned upside down. Global warming, globalization, an aging population, social networks, robots and artificial intelligence are making fatalism inevitable. We will have to live with this and adapt. Does that mean we must be pessimistic? Of course not! It is our duty to be optimistic and we are being given an opportunity perhaps to build a new world and another civilization provided we are ambitious. It is our responsibility and our duty. This is what should make us free and happy.

  • Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of the Company, Mac Graw Hill – 1960
  • Bernard Stiegler, on the Economy of Contribution,
  • Thomas Peters, Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence. Lessons from America’s Best-run Companies, (French translation – InterÉditions (1983))
  • Tom Peters, Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties, (French translation – Dunod, 1993)
  • Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942

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