Guilt is good for corporate chief executives

Businesses that embrace guilt and understand their success is inextricably linked to society’s prosperity, will ultimately win out

Teenager Greta Thunberg on board the racing boat Malizia II in the Atlantic Ocean. Activists such as her have catapulted the climate emergency on to centre stage. Photograph:    Greta Thunberg/EPA

Teenager Greta Thunberg on board the racing boat Malizia II in the Atlantic Ocean. Activists such as her have catapulted the climate emergency on to centre stage. Photograph: Greta Thunberg/EPA

 

We live on a dying planet surrounded by desperate inequality. Corporate leaders like to say they are working to solve the problems: just this week one of the US’s largest business groups urged companies to consider the environment and workers’ wellbeing alongside their pursuit of profits. But how many of them are really doing everything within their power to change the status quo?

Activists such as teenager Greta Thunberg have catapulted the climate emergency on to centre stage. And global goals set by the United Nations give us until 2030 to end poverty, fight inequality and stop climate change. It is not surprising that business leaders have promised to rethink their roles and contribution to society, and incorporate them into a new “business purpose”.

This is progress. But matching promises with meaningful deeds will be harder. Our latest Responsible Business Tracker of UK companies found that we are in danger of falling into a new era of “purpose-washing”: 86 per cent of those surveyed said they have a purpose statement, but only 17 per cent have a plan to make sure it’s practised at every level of the organisation. That gap is too big. If purpose is stated but not carried out, it is not only delusional, but diversionary.

Drive improvements

The key to making sure business walks the talk is understanding what changes behaviour. Businesses are run and powered by people, so it stands to reason that the things that lead us to evolve as individuals also drive improvements in businesses. When I think about the times I have made lasting changes, guilt has often provided the push I’ve needed. Using guilt to deter people and businesses from harming themselves or others can fast-track responsibility right to the heart of business practice. But guilt is not enough.

Take zero-hours contracts as an example. These contracts, which tie up workers without guaranteeing them any pay, are still rife despite ample evidence of the negative impact they have on employees. Many companies continue to offer the legal minimum wage instead of the living wage that workers need to do more than survive. And rising hourly pay is often not matched by increased weekly pay. None of this will address inequality.

For their part, consumers are bombarded with requests to switch to products and services that are better for them and the planet, but habit, convenience and self-interest often come first. We can also feel powerless to make any real difference as individuals – what is the point of changing if we do not know how and no one else is doing it?

It is easy to turn a blind eye to the effects of our actions if we think there is nothing we can do. But there is a better way. Guilt on its own is of little use. Guilt combined with practical solutions can serve as the missing stepping stone between what we say we do and what we actually do. It pushes companies to actually tackle societal problems.

Meaningful change

To create meaningful change, business leaders must not only be shown the negative impact of their actions to create the necessary foundation of guilt (seeing is believing, after all), they must also be shown how they can collectively solve problems.

Businesses that embrace guilt, seek solutions and understand that their success is inextricably linked to society’s prosperity, will ultimately win out. For example, Boots, the UK pharmacy chain, not only wants to “help people . . . live healthier and happier lives” but also invests in partnerships that improve cancer and dementia care.

And NEMI Teas, which believes “we are born free and equal”, employs refugees to run tea stalls at London markets, allowing them to gain confidence and work skills.

Other business leaders must make decisions that will make their children proud. Acknowledge that permanent nagging. Listen to your conscience: guilt is good. What keeps you awake you at night could very well save us all.

The writer is chief executive of Business in the Community

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019