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Three cultural principles for sustainable social change

Business can often be a driver of social change, but some organisations are started specifically to further a social mission. The social enterprise sector in the UK employs approximately one million people, in 70,000 organisations, contributing more than £24 billion to the economy. All these organisations are using the power of business as a force to drive social change.

With customers becoming ever more socially conscious, traditional businesses are also waking up to the need to deliver value both socially and financially. Companies like Patagonia and Innocent Drinks are demonstrating how delivering value to all stakeholders, such as suppliers, customers, the environment and local community, can improve the world we live in, while also delivering a healthy financial performance.

However, many organisations struggle to balance their social mission with their commercial reality and thus face challenges sustaining the positive changes they make. There is no single answer to this challenge, but after working with a number of social enterprises, I have come to the realisation that creating the right culture can greatly increase the chance of success. These cultures can be highlighted in three core principles:

Principle 1: Purpose over profit

To do social good, we need to prioritise purpose over financial return. Profit should be a by-product of an organisation that is achieving its reason-for-being.

By focusing on purpose, organisations can treat all their stakeholders equally rather than holding shareholder goals above those of all other stakeholders. This allows organisations to make decisions in the interest of their purpose, not to make the most money or defend their financial position.

A clear purpose can also remove competition between organisations. Others who help achieve the purpose are friends, not competitors. Collaboration with your competition may seem foolish; you could be giving away what differentiates your company; but you are actually enabling others to achieve your purpose, growing your reach and amplifying your impact.

Principle 2: Personal over professional

To make a sustainable social change we must also look internally at how we treat each other.

Organisations have traditionally encouraged people to show up with their “professional” self and leave their “personal” self at home. This “professional” culture has led to employees not exposing too much of themselves for fear of criticism and ridicule, thus creating unrealistic workplace expectations, a lack of empathy for others and emotional dissatisfaction for many.

By encouraging everyone to bring their whole self to work, we can gain a better understanding of each others personality, beliefs, and life outside the office. To do this, we must have the humility to remove the trappings of perceived success, such as the CEO’s suite and the private parking spaces that subconsciously remind people of their position in the organisation and work to treat everyone in the organisation as equals.

We may be surprised to see the energy that wholeness and shared purpose can bring to people within our organisations. We should not lose this energy by creating roles or rules. If we allow people to define their own roles, they can focus on their personal contribution to the purpose, not the boundaries of their role as defined by the organisation. If we remove rules and focus on creating shared values, we no longer need to manage people; we can utilise collective responsibility to ensure we are treating each other correctly and achieving our collective goals.

Personal over professional workplaces can lead to more adaptive and responsive organisations, where employees form strong personal relationships with their colleagues leading to greater equality and inclusivity throughout the organisation.

Principle 3: Trust over control

Trusting people rather than trying to manage and control them can unleash the highest forms of human motivation. If we want to do social good in a scalable way we need to have motivated, driven people behind our purpose. Trusting people to further this purpose is the only way to scale without negatively impacting the benefits of principle two, personal over professional.

By trusting people, we can remove the need for management and allow people to focus on doing the right thing. Those closest to the information are almost always in the best position to make decisions. Allowing people to decide what to do and then go ahead and do it leads to a greater commitment to delivering upon their decisions.

Removing management also means power stays within teams. Individuals can focus on doing what delivers for the purpose rather than climbing the management ladder to gain the power needed to make decisions.

Trusting people with information and allowing them the opportunity to make their own decisions might bring surprising results. People tend to do what is right, and by giving them the information, they will find new ways to solve problems or find opportunities to achieve the organisations purpose. We can then all benefit from the collective power and creativity of diverse minds not just the thoughts of a few in management positions.

Organisational culture is a huge topic and what I have shared only just scratches the surface. However, these principles can form the basis for a new way of approaching work in organisations that wish to achieve sustainable social change. There is no single template for how to apply these principles to organisations, as individuals it is up to us to embrace them and adapt our ways of working to embody these principles in the unique way that is right for our organisation.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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