We Had Corporate Responsibility Upside-Down

November 3, 2021
Robert Barnard-Weston

Q: Why might your organisation build a better future for the world by first taking care of your own people and the community around them? 

A: Some of today’s most successful corporate responsibility programmes are being carried out by those who were late to the party. There is a simple reason for this: having observed the mistakes of the earlier adopters, some late starters have figured out how to make so-called sustainability programmes sustainable in every sense.

Doubtless with the best of intentions, most organisations began by focusing on the global problems: climate change, oceans, rain forests, human rights and so on. Trouble is, it didn’t work – a fortune was spent and almost everything continued to get worse. The reason is this: we had the problem upside down. Those who, more recently, have turned CSR the right way up have been making real progress on solving problems at every level.

Some time ago I read Robert Sapolsky’s outstanding Behave – The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst and, if I were to try to get the message of this magnificent 700-page tome down to one line it would be: ‘enlightened self-interest is the key to our future.’ Our neurons, our hormones, our genes and our cultures, says Sapolsky, seem to be aligned in sending this message.

And when we have ignored this fundamental human characteristic, even the most well-intended initiatives have tended either to fizzle out or to cause more harm than good. In order to thrive – perhaps even to survive – we need to start with ourselves and work outwards. In individuals, teams, organisations, communities, nations and the world, there is one thing that prevents us from behaving at our best more than any other: our own pain. And it takes many forms.

The homeless parent has little chance of helping other people’s hungry children; the community with acute drug problems can rarely fund safe, cosy rehabs; the business leader with investors demanding better returns struggles to focus on reducing carbon emissions. If you do the ‘right’ thing tomorrow you will thrive – but if you don’t do the ‘wrong’ thing today, you may not survive. 

They are all stuck in a double bind.

Or are they?

When I look back over thirty years of consulting in corporate responsibility, I see there is a single characteristic that is shared by all the most successful initiatives: they made it an inside-out job. They focused first on taking the best possible care of their own people; these people were then empowered to take greater care of their community; this all-win approach was then extended to each organisation’s global responsibilities.

Healthy, happy, informed, empowered, skilled, proud and passionate employees often outperform others by huge margins. And when they can also see the benefits of their community improvement programmes out of the office window, these achievements improve even more. In addressing social and environmental issues locally, global benefits begin to accrue which can boost this upward spiral further.

And the best part is: addressing corporate responsibility from the inside out is becoming more attractive and effective than ever. The brightest, most capable young people who will be tomorrow’s leaders – the ones today’s leaders most wish to hire now – are focused more than ever on combining prosperity with purpose, money with meaning. 

Once again, the research tells a clear and powerful story: young people are moving more and more towards employers for whom employee wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, equality, transparency, flexibility and authenticity inside their organisations are recognised as the keys to success. 

And these values, in turn, drive more successful approaches not only to the financials but also to climate change, poverty, human rights and all the other crucial issues in the outside world.

So, to stop getting corporate responsibility upside down, all you need to do is turn it inside out!