One of the speakers at last weekend’s Peace Prize Forum was Michael Posner, Professor of Business and Society at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Posner has been a prominent voice in support of human rights protections in global business operations and the force behind the first-ever center on business and human rights at a business school. He had much to observe about the state of business integrity and corporate values, but one of his comments stood out especially. In response to an audience question, he mused, ” I have no doubt that there are corporate people who want to go home at night feeling good about what they do.” I missed a good deal of the rest of the program as I considered his observation.
It seems likely to me that most of us, given a choice, would prefer going home at the end of the day feeling good about how we had spent our time. It’s hard to imagine that there might really be those who would prefer having wasted their time or, worse, engaged in activities that impacted others and the world negatively. (This belief acknowledges the exception of sociopaths and other deviants who are outliers in the range of human norms.) The vast majority of us seek not only positive monetary rewards for what we do, but also the intrinsic rewards of bringing something positive to our workplace and to others, however large or small that might be. But I find myself wondering how many of us actually succeed in doing so. And I’m a bit nervous about the answer to the corollary question: how does my own view about what I do compare to how the world sees my efforts?
The reality is likely that there’s a gulf between wanting to feel good about what we do and actually having the basis for doing so. Feeling good about what we do presupposes that we are actually doing something that warrants feeling good about. And therein lies the potential problem, because too often we have little or no understanding of the impact of what we do, intended or not.
Nowhere is this conundrum more puzzling and maddening than in development work, like that undertaken by Winds of Peace in Nicaragua. In a place of such need, where any gesture of assistance might seem to be an act of uplifting compassion, I have witnessed the occasional unintended, undermining effects that such generosity can create. Even Winds of Peace has experienced its moments when we have reflected on a grant or loan and recognized only after the fact that our support may have actually eroded a community’s sense of independence, sustainability or even their dignity. Maybe it even enabled some self-defeating behaviors. (Learning is a wonderful phenomenon, but it can be painful as it occurs.)
Doing good work, whether in a corporation or a foundation or on a farm, doesn’t simply happen. It requires not only whatever technical tools are needed for the job to be done, but also a careful introspection of our motives, a sensitivity to equitable results, an understanding of the outcomes, and the discipline to bring those outcomes into reality. Simply feeling good about what we do can be achieved by anyone- all it takes is a willingness to fool ourselves. If the “feeling good” part of the equation is for our own benefit, then the work that has been done begs for scrutiny. More important than how we feel when we go home at night is whether those we serve feel good about what has transpired.
Significant accomplishments never come easily. The works of Nobel Peace Prize laureates are immersed in decades of persistence, selflessness and courage. Advances in medicine and science occur after generations of trial-and-error, careful analysis of fact and relentless commitment. Sustainable development in the world has been built upon the listening partnerships forged between the weak and the strong who share a need for justice. Doing vocation that truly allows us to go home at night feeling good about what we do will never be the result of self-delusion. It only happens as a result of intentionality, integrity and careful hard work….