A balancing act: creating a new economy and maintaining our own wellbeing
On Purpose CEO, Tom Rippin, explores the relationship between doing good in the world and meeting high employment standards.
By Tom Rippin, On Purpose Founder & CEO.
This August, we B Corps are sharing stories of what it means to work for a B Corp, how we meet the highest standards for health and wellbeing for our colleagues and how working in a B Corp can provide purpose and meaning in our jobs.
I’m going to be honest: this is a conversation I usually try to avoid it, because I rarely find it’s held for the right reasons. Often the justification for having a purpose is that it helps the bottom line and/or helps attract and retain staff. This reasoning is epitomised by The Korn Ferry Institute’s 2016 report that puts out “the motto that by doing good, people and enterprises also can do well”. The headline, much to their apparent relief, is that “purpose has a purpose” — meant, I fear, without irony. It is disappointingly predictable that purpose’s raison-d’être turns out to be financial growth.
We should all achieve high employment standards. I’m proud that one of my colleagues recently accredited On Purpose as a Living Wage employer and that we have introduced increasingly flexible working practices, prompted at least in part by our regular B Impact assessment.
But we also need to be honest. Being a B Corp does not magically confer staff wellbeing - I believe it can actually make things harder. If we are living up to the true challenge of being a B Corp, we don’t make things easy for ourselves: we tackle complex social or environmental problems, in markets that often need educating about what we do, and we hold ourselves to high standards on how we do business. These constraints can create pressures on the business and the team. They may also reduce the cash we have to splash (compared to straight-forwardly commercial businesses) on interventions like generous parental leave schemes or access to a private counselling service, for example.
This is a central tension B Corps (along with other purpose-driven organisations) manage: what is the right balance between doing good out there in the world and focusing on our internal wellbeing? It’s not a new tension nor is it confined to business. The exhortation to “love your neighbour as yourself” has been with us for at least a couple of thousand years!
How should we strike this balance? First, let’s make sure we are balancing the right two things. We need to connect our wellbeing, not to Korn Ferry’s financial success (this is still a form of self-love — just focused on the shareholding subset of ourselves), but rather to what we do out there in the world — in other words, to our purpose. This is the right trade off to focus on.
Now we are sitting on the right seesaw, the second step is to strike the right balance between self-absorption and burn-out. Too far in one direction and we forget what we are here for, too far in the other and we won’t sustain our work for long enough to make a difference. What is right will vary from organisation to organisation and from time to time but managing the seesaw openly and actively will, in itself, make a difference.
This balancing act is repeated at multiple levels (as any systems thinker will tell you) — the individual, organisational, movement and economy to name some of them. As a movement for a new economy, for example, we must collectively role-model striking this balance just like we do as organisations. We must offer an attractive prospect of future work, but we also have to make fundamental change happen soon. No point bringing our own luxury deckchairs to the party if we’re not also up on the bridge and down in the engine room doing everything we can to avoid the iceberg!
In our task of finding a new economy, we have an additional, often over-looked superpower: positive feedback loops. An example is our ability to infect others with our values. The principle is simple: the more organisations that join us, the easier it becomes to create the economy we need. And the easier it becomes, the more will join in. That’s why I believe that B Corps — like other purpose-driven organisations — serve a dual purpose: the direct impact of your operations and the indirect impact of your setting an example.
Ultimately, in the very big picture, the trade-off between investing in our purpose versus in our wellbeing resolves itself. Think about it this way: trying to maintain a healthy workforce is more difficult the less healthy the economy and society around us is. For example, the greater the inequality in our economy, the lower our societal wellbeing. Because we are all woven into society, the lower our societal wellbeing, the more difficult it is to maintain within our organisations. So, one long-term but necessary condition for organisational wellbeing is to bring about a healthy economy. Ultimately, loving your neighbour and loving yourself become one.
A first step for businesses interested in measuring their social and environmental impact is by using the free B Impact Assessment tool. Any company wishing to certify as a B Corp has its performance assessed by B Lab across all dimensions of its business. These companies are on a journey of continuous improvement to ensure business leverages its power to be a positive force in the world.