Socially responsible business in the era of President Trump

09 November 2016

Donald Trump
Photo: Gage Skidmore

Right now, my social media feeds are full of people looking for someone to blame. Different groups turning on each other. Recriminations. Accusations.

I have often said that if the human race goes over the edge of the abyss, it is highly likely that as it does so we will all be pointing fingers at each other and casting blame.

If a polarised and divided society is our biggest problem, you don’t solve it this way.

This is why socially responsible business – the sole human social construct that is pragmatic by nature and is respected by both sides of the political divide – is going to have a crucial role to play.

So, just for a moment, let’s step aside from a partisan view of what just happened and reflect on the nature of the challenge in a different way.

There is a wider phenomenon at play here

 In the era of social media, we were supposed to get closer together. We were supposed to be on a steady inexorable path towards more understanding, less racism, less bigotry.

But with Trump, with the so-called Brexit vote, and with other similar upheavals in other parts of the world, we’re seeing evidence that human psychology is not so linear.

For one thing, social media – although it has the power to connect you to the wider world – is generally being used to surround yourself with the amplified thoughts of people like yourself. It has helped us to become more tribal, not less.

Secondly, although it gives us access to a world of knowledge and learning, it also gives access to whatever conspiracy theories most reinforce your own view of how the world should work. As we have discovered, what people choose to believe is not based on what science or fact-checkers prove to be correct. Given the choice, enough will choose the comforting belief rather than the factually robust one. The details and magnitude differ, but the basic principle is not unique to any particular political view. As you were reading this, you were assuming it applied only to the other lot. But none of us are immune.

Identifying this phenomenon and calling it out does not stop it from working. And strangely enough calling other people stupid does not win them over.

We have a world that is reaching a number of limits all at once. We are pushing our climate to a dangerous point. We are straining water resources to the limit. We are flooding the planet with unprecedented numbers of people, filling even the most inhospitable living environments in the hope we can make it all work.

That is forcing us to change our way of being. We’ve gone far enough to identify how radically we may need to change how we live. But it was always going to be unlikely that we would easily and naturally just slip into a consensus about doing what needs to be done.

As we get more and more people mixing together, people have become scared of what they don’t understand. They have picked up the impression that what they have is under threat, and they hit out at what they can see and touch rather than the big conceptual things that are outside of their power to influence and are invisible to their daily lives. Giving those people a derogatory label and demonising them is part of the problem.

We also have a political process in the US (and others are learning the lessons fast) that has developed the art of negative campaigning to a very high level. As we can see, you can win an election by destroying your opponent and promising the earth without offering any detail whatsoever about what you will do.

Given how effectively it has worked, it is sadly certain that it will remain a routine part of political discourse. Because it works. But the consequence is detrimental to all. There is no possibility of a mature political discourse in such an environment.

We have lived through (in retrospect) a remarkably stable period in our planet’s history. Strong institutions, supported by a broad consensus of how the system should work. It may be that such stability is coming to an end – and that’s not the result of one rogue election result. This is a process that reflects the change we’re having to make as a species, and the fact that whenever change is forced upon you, different players will emerge to take the agenda.

Businesses in an unstable unsustainable world

It is a simple fact that the coming months will see people lashing out at each other, calling each other names and casting blame.

If we want to achieve a sustainable and fairer world, this is a self-indulgence we can’t afford. Because such a world will be built on consensus, feeding the divisiveness is counter-productive.

‘Us vs them’ is the most powerful motivating force we know, so I don’t expect people generally to agree. But that’s why businesses may prove to be an important force in the world we’re entering.

Unlike any other social construct we have created as a species, business is pragmatic. It has been forced to develop a way of operating that ensures it understands the facts about what’s happening in the world, because if it believes in comforting lies then it goes bust.

And businesses are run by fallible human beings. Some of them go bust all the time.

But the best ones see what’s happening and create change to adapt and to seize opportunities. It’s why businesses have become the most effective entities for innovation and problem-solving. And it’s why businesses usually keep themselves neutral when it comes to party politics, being keen to retain a platform of mutual respect.

Here’s what we need to do.

  1. Create a consensus across society on action on climate change, and to understand how to create wealth in a sustainable way
  2. Create an inclusive society where diversity is a source of strength and not a threat
  3. Create respect for strong institutions that mean we can govern ourselves effectively, in spite of our flaws as a tribalistic species prone to self-interest

These can only be achieved by wide agreement. If you think ‘your side’ owns this agenda, and can only implement it by defeating the other side, you’ve misunderstood the nature of the challenge.

How did one of the two main political parties of the US become ideologically opposed to action on climate change? It wasn’t always the case. See it as a social phenomenon rather than a blame thing.

The point is how do we begin to get it back? How do we begin to build an understanding on the political right of the importance of the science?

History teaches us that often the most effective peacemakers are former generals, because they have nothing to prove to their constituency. So it seems that we need conservative champions of a science-based approach.

Businesses, being purely pragmatic about what works, have generally come to a cultural view that climate change is happening because they see it affecting their supply chain. They have started to show that innovating to avoid or mitigate it can be good business.

Likewise, businesses have learned that there is strength in workplace diversity. They have discovered how to celebrate such diversity and use different perspectives and voices to strengthen their effectiveness as businesses.

And businesses also know that they do best in a stable, prosperous society. They see the difference between doing business in countries with strong institutions and those where there is weak governance. They have an interest in a stable rules-based society.

Socially responsible businesses, as a global community, have an important part to play in the coming decade. They need to resist the temptation to become partisan (sadly, all Starbucks’ great work on promoting inclusion has been undermined by Schultz’s declaration of support for one side) but instead become the pragmatic actors focused on what needs to be done.

Politics worldwide is on a trend to greater polarisation. We need to find ways to counter that or else the system fails to work. Democracy may cease to be the least worst of all possible systems on its current trajectory. And all the stable things we’ve taken for granted over recent decades may prove to be a lot more fragile than we ever imagined possible.

If you want to make a positive difference in the world focus on building the alternative future you want to see. Accept that a whole bunch of others will be spending a lot of time on tearing each other down. Don’t let peer pressure make you think that’s how it has to be done. 


See alsoCan we be powerful without being tribal?