Where power meets profit

All business relationships are based on power and profit. To pretend otherwise is delusional, and to manage any business in denial of so simple and far-reaching a truth is to create dishonest and unsustainable business environments.

They are environments within which tactics masquerade as ethical concern.
But tactics represent a means of getting what you want; ethical concern serves no such self-interest. For instance, trust in business is a tactic rather than a genuine human value. If you trust your staff you invariably enjoy a trade-off in greater staff commitment and responsibility. The trust is neither genuine nor absolute, because it is subject to the overall business mission: growth, profitability, market share gain, share value, empowerment, and the many other goals that at some stage or another always come at a human price.

In manipulative companies, trust is presented as an absolute human value, and when that trust is betrayed, the consequence is a sense of utter disillusionment not just for those directly involved but for the entire corporate collective. This is fatal to morale; there are few things that so sicken employees as the dissonance between the claims to ethical concern, and the brutal reality.

Employees say it loudly and regularly: “We want to know where we stand ... that is more important to us than any amount of false but seductive promise.” But senior management doesn’t hear and resorts to the same old myths of ethical concern, which employees know aren’t genuine. There is nothing more schizoid than pretending you are a happy family when you know you are not. We should all be especially wary of the company that declares allegiance to “family values”.

One of the most unsubtle examples of manipulation (and self-deception) is the so-called team building exercise, when alcohol, motivational speakers, Powerpoint presentations, too much rich food, and a bogus climate of goodwill is thought to be the ideal way of thanking staff for past performance, or preparing them for the heroic feats required in the year ahead. In some so-called team-building exercises, colleagues are forced into relationships of intimacy that are not only inappropriate, but an invasion of their privacy. Often employees are confused by their own response to such blandishments: on the face of it, they are the recipients of apparent largesse and concern, which places them under an obligation of gratitude.

At the most basic level, employees go through the requisite motions, and in the interests of corporate survival participate as required, but inside a voice is saying: “If I am as great a person as they keep telling me I am, why don’t they just pay me a bit more?” And of course, they hate themselves most on the day they are retrenched, because they realise they have connived in their own misfortune.

Nearly everyone in companies is in the process of building or sustaining a career: everything—or very nearly everything—in such a person’s life depends upon a series of daily successes or triumphs. Nothing in business is ever inconsequential. Watch a group of business people clustered in front of an open door; it is always the less powerful who get shepherded through first by the more powerful. Even at this level of engagement, behaviour is tactical.

Under such circumstances, tactics can include apparent displays of startling honesty. What “as you all know, maths has never been my strong suite, so I’ll let Jim take us through the figures” really means is: “working with the figures is a lower level skill which Jim has. I have the higher level skills of formulating the strategy.” And: “Jim, you are really good with words, you do the presentation” really means, “You are pretty good with the icing, but of course I bake the cake.”

A male executive who—succumbing to the beguiling invitation of collegiate candour—elects to show a weakness, and admits that he is not coping, is playing a suicidal game. Sooner or later he will hear his brave words quoted back to him: “You’re a good man, we like you in this organisation ... but we both know that when the heat is on, you battle to cope ... you are not made for the top job ... we are just going to have to let you go.”

Such an understanding would suggest that, in business, all relationships are transactional: “I do this for you, you do that for me.” This is indeed the case, and there is no reason to believe it represents a disillusioning limitation of our human potential. It does not mean that friends or colleagues in business can’t elect to relate on a more substantive or altruistic basis, and they often do. But friendship is quite co-incidental to the corporate mission, and people make a terrible mistake if they confuse the friendly conventions of their private world with the ineluctably iron laws of business.

To recognise the power and profit human nexus, and to manage and relate accordingly is to build a sustainable and an essentially honest business ideology that can drive up levels of performance, and—perhaps more importantly—the happiness quotient of any organisation.

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