Since the early 2000s, the business of doing business has changed its looks markedly. As corporations gain power and reach, many in the public are subjecting them to increasingly insistent questions about their impact on the lives of workers, the environment and society at large.
At the same time, academics have focused more attention on compassion in management and business organizations. Today, considerable research parses the way corporate conduct affects employees, laid-off workers and the well-being of society as a whole. A considerable segment of this academic literature advocates for what once seemed like an oxymoron: compassion in corporate management.
Most of the recent research on compassion focuses on individuals and the group. Most management research, meanwhile, centers on economic performance and efficiency. In an editorial for Journal of Management, though, Rice Business Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of ManagementJennifer George argues that compassion research can actually be a jumping-off point for focus on social problems, well-being and identifying the conditions under which organizations do the least harm.
But what is compassion in business, exactly? According to George, it's the practice of setting up organizations so that they respond to the vulnerable groups in their orbit. To do this, George says, companies should reconsider the concept of "American Corporate Capitalism (ACC)," which operates when corporations, workers and consumers pursue self-interest. ACC follows the laws of supply and demand, and is founded on the bedrock principles of respect for private property, an emphasis on economic growth and using profits as the measuring stick for making business decision.
Make no mistake, George adds: "ACC is an ideology." A host of institutions provide the underpinnings that allow ACC to flourish, among them the legal system, governmental agencies, stock markets, media and advertising and trade organizations.
But, notes George, the rewards from American Corporate Capitalism are narrowing sharply. ACC, she contends, now concentrates benefits upon fewer and fewer people. One article she cites suggests that outsized CEO salaries and compensation, coupled with large income inequality within a company, may result in organizations that do harm to their workers.
In fact, "the tenets of ACC seem to downplay the importance of compassionate organizing," says George. Harm done by corporations, such as laying off employees, may occur unintentionally, but those decisions still cause suffering. ACC, she says, "has the potential to create conditions under which compassion is much less likely to occur."
As a result, it's crucial to closely examine the tensions and contradictions between ACC and compassion. A focus on compassion would "identify the conditions under which organizations inflict the least harm and alleviate the most suffering," George writes.
She proposes a wide-ranging agenda to achieve this. First, researchers should look at organizational decision-making to track the influence of ACC values and whether criteria such as dominance or hierarchy override harmony and egalitarianism. Identifying the factors that spur organizations to favor only shareholders and customers over employees and neighboring communities could offer insights for management. Other research, George suggests, ought to examine a range of companies operating in the same sector, tracing which cause more damage and which are more successful at reducing suffering.
Finally, George says, academics should develop case studies of organizations that successfully pursue policies such as employing the disabled – policies designed to promote the well-being of vulnerable groups inside and outside the company.
Because corporations wield such vast influence, the harm they do can reach wide swaths of the population. It's time, George writes, for researchers to examine the disconnects between prevailing corporate culture and compassion. Effectively done, she says, such research could vault over the ivory battlements into the heart of everyday life.
------This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom in 2019.
Based on research from Jennifer M. George, the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.