Imagine at a board meeting the issue of pollution is raised, and the directors’ responses all focus on how to deflect public attention from the serious damages their company is doing to the environment. Some suggest running an advertising campaign about their commitment to recycling their office supplies, others want to do something with schools involving children cleaning up their local ponds, and so on until an intern sitting at the back asks, “but what’s going to be done about the pollution itself?”
Whenever top executives are hit with their ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ moment, they have a choice. They can dispense with the messenger. Or they can take a closer look at what kind of organisation they have become and embark on a genuine change programme.
All too often the focus of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been on how to get people to form a positive view of a company, as opposed to how to ensure they become disposed to interact with it in a positive manner.
‘Seeing’ is a static state and it is transient. A view formed one moment can be easily displaced by another if other experiences throw up contradictions. By contrast, the underlying disposition to interact in a particular way – the gestalt – affects how a person relates to the experiences from a defined source on an on-going basis.
The question is how should an organisation go about building relationships with the diverse stakeholders that make up its ‘public’ so that over time, they are more disposed to interact with it positively. Some may be tempted to use gloss and misdirection to draw people into a false sense of endearment towards the organisation. But not only is the very purpose of CSR incompatible with such irresponsible manipulation, such an approach is unstable as lies tend not to cohere in any broad narrative, carries huge risks in their exposure, and is ultimately unsustainable as we live in the age of pervasive surveillance and scrutiny.
The alternative is to commit the organisation to the development of the cooperative gestalt in all its interactions with stakeholders. The cooperative gestalt denotes a dispositional tendency that prevails when the people concerned are inclined to:
• Engage in cooperative enquiry: they believe in pronouncements about what is or is not the case in so far as these are open to evidential checking, objective observation, cross-examination by anyone who can make a contribution.
• Embrace mutual responsibility: they regard those they are dealing with as deserving of equal respect, and want to treat them with the same consideration as they would expect to be accorded to themselves.
• Expect participatory decision-making: they support decisions made on the basis that the decision-makers have sought and taken into account the ideas and concerns of those affected by the decisions in question.
Organisations that consistently behave towards their stakeholders in line with the cooperative gestalt will in effect be cultivating a similar set of dispositions amongst their stakeholders in how they will interact with those organisations.
A company that is ready to acknowledge its mistakes in causing pollution, financial mismanagement, safety failures, or its deficiencies in paying the poorest staff a sub-living wage, strong-arming small suppliers, destabilising communities through mass redundancies; and is prepared to rectify them, not by high profile declarations, but through sincere collaboration with those affected, will produce in everyone they deal with the deepest sense of trust and respect.
The history of institutions – be they national governments, transnational corporations, or local businesses – bears testimony to the inextricable connections between organisational actions in line with the cooperative gestalt and the mirror image of that gestalt in how people are disposed to interact with those organisations.
CSR can never work as a one-way broadcast about the virtues of a company. To carry any credibility, it has to be built on a reciprocal basis. Respect stakeholders, be open with them in making any claims so they can look into the foundation for such claims, and involve them in critical decision making – in return, they will respect you, seek your input rather than jump to conclusions, and give you credit where it is deserved, and the benefit of the doubt where you have slipped up.