Business is a means to make money. Nothing more, nothing less
Money is all that matters in the end. The sole purpose of a business is to make its owners rich. Everything else is just embellishment and sales speak, covering up primal greed in lofty words and false sentimentality. There is no room for altruism or empathy in this cold, hard economic reality of business.
This assumption of the ruthless, relentless drive for profit is the one constant argument used to push back at anyone suggesting we should strive for a more humane version of the current capitalist model of commerce. This model has won, we are told, and is the dominant – maybe the only remaining – working economic model in existence. You may not like it, but there is no alternative. Businesses exist to make profit, and even their most altruistic and humane actions can ultimately only be explained by that economic necessity.
Is that really all there is to it? Business is business and there is no room for sentimentality when it comes to the bottom line?
I find it hard to believe that a system that leaves no room whatsoever for human values, such as virtue, compassion, kindness, higher purpose, social responsibility, etc. can ultimately thrive for long in our human world.
Because businesses are not alien life forms or soulless machines, but a collaboration of human beings, like you and me. And I don’t believe human beings are purely driven by greed and a selfish lust for power. We are social creatures at our very core. Wherever there are people, there are social structures and social rules to encourage collaboration, protect the weak, help each other and balance the greater good against the individual’s needs and desires.
Some people would argue that the very existence of those structures and rules proves that without them we would all just be brutal predators, waiting for a chance to pounce on the weak and helpless for nothing but our personal satisfaction. We have societies, they would say, because without them we would be savages.
Yet, all over this planet and all through history, people have found ways to peacefully live together, to collaborate and support each other. We find evidence from before the dawn of history of injured or old individuals being cared for. We find ancient myths proclaiming the virtues of compassion, kindness and social responsibility. Ancient laws talk about justice and fairness and social responsibility as if that is the natural state of our being, and those who deviate from it are the harmful exception society needs to be protected from.
I think the simplest explanation for this very human tendency to form complex, regulated and collaborative societies is that we are at heart a complex, regulated and collaborative species. We are NOT ruthless individuals only limited in the harm we do to other by the force of law and the fear of retribution. We WANT to live in peace. We LOVE to help each other. We THRIVE on collaboration. The rules and structures are there because we know societies are fragile things and can easily be twisted and broken by the few individuals that ignore their social side in favour of their individual desires. Precisely because we value a just, fair and functioning society so much we keep building them. Since we are far from perfect, our attempts to create the perfect society are bound to be imperfect, too. But we keep trying. Because what we really want is to live in peace.
Which brings me back to business. Businesses are human organisations and the people that come together to form a business bring all their human characteristics with them. That means that next to their individual needs and fears and insecurities, they bring their very human social instincts. They bring their desire for collaboration, for contribution, for attention, appreciation, affection, and acceptance, for fairness, for meaning and purpose.
Yes, they want money, too. They need to earn at least a living wage and most of us would love to earn a comfortable income, enough to put a rest to our – also very human – worry of not having enough in the future. But that is hardly ever the sum total of what we are after. Once our basic needs are met, most of us want more from work than just an income. We want to feel part of our organisations. We want to be proud of the work we do. We want to feel proud of the organisations we work for. We want to feel we’re making a positive contribution to our work and to the world.
With all the evidence we have that human beings are more, much more, than purely self-centred egoists, isn’t it sad that our corporate methods are so focused on bringing everything down to the lowest and meanest common denominator? More than sad, even. I have a strong suspicion that because the accepted business narrative has become so devoid of social and human considerations, the people working for them also lose touch with that side of their own socio-emotional needs and desires. By leaving no room for human needs other than money, status and power – by denying even that such needs exist – our organisations push people into a state of almost pure survival mode, where everything becomes a win-lose transaction, and every relationship and collaboration only exists for its utilitarian function.
The sad thing is that our society seems to have fallen for this false narrative of human nature. Business has become the dominant force in shaping our culture and with that its portrayal of humans as ‘homo economicus’ – the individual always out to maximise personal gain – has become the standard we measure everything by.
So, does that mean business has won and this is what we have to learn to live with?
As I said, I don’t believe that this model and its way of thinking is ultimately sustainable. We all get pressured on a daily basis to believe in this model. We all are forced to obey its rules even if we don’t believe in it. Yet, humans will be humans, and when a part of us remains unfulfilled and unexpressed, this will, sooner or later, create a reaction. When we can’t express our social nature, we will get stressed, uncomfortable, dysfunctional and sick. When we can’t satisfy our need to be a good person, we feel unfulfilled and unhappy. We know there is something missing, even if we can’t exactly put our finger on it. Even if we belong to the lucky minority that succeeds in the material race for money, status and power, if we can’t express our essential social character, we will not be satisfied.
By ignoring the social nature of the people that make up their organisations, businesses are pushing them to a breaking point. In this time of change and uncertainty, just when businesses need their people to be at their best, their most creative and most daring, they are reducing their people to the most basic state of survival. This makes it harder, almost impossible, for people to live up to what is expected of them, which only increases their stress and fear of failure, making things even worse. Something will have to give. Something will give.
I think we are close to breaking-point right now. The very success of the current way of thinking is creating the conditions for its own downfall. By taking over all aspects of our lives, the cold, self-centred homo-economicus we are made to believe we are has driven the altruistic, caring homo-socialis1almost completely underground. But there, with its back to the wall, it will become stronger. Like all suppressed emotions, our social needs and desires have not disappeared, they are just gathering strength. They are collecting the tension, the sadness, the disappointment and the longing and turning it into energy, like tightening a spring. And when the right moment comes, the spring will be released. All that stored energy will come out with an unstoppable force when the breaking point is reached.
I don’t know how this is going to end. I am not a prophet. I am not even a futurist2. But I do know we are facing a fundamental choice here. When the breaking point comes, what are we going to break? Are we letting it break society and all the people in it, or will we break the business model causing all this pain and dysfunction?
The choice is ours.