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Thoughts on flourishing

It is hard to watch, but the documentary “‘Twas the fight before Christmas” is compelling. It also hints at an extraordinary opportunity for organisations.

Picture a quiet American suburb with lovely family homes, older folks walking their dogs and dropping by their neighbours for a quiet chat in the cool of the evening. Then add a new family with a penchant for Christmas lights. The Christmas enthusiast (“I love Christmas more than life itself“) decorates his house, hires a camel, arranges choral singers and attracts busloads of people, promising it will be even bigger next year. His new neighbours are none too pleased.

It results in law suits (Mr Christmas is of course a lawyer and aspiring politician), a media and social media storm, death threats, vigilante gun toting “protectors”, and claims of religious discrimination. If it weren’t true, you would swear it is the latest Chevy Chase or Danny DeVito Christmas movie. 

The beauty of the movie is hearing directly from all perspectives. Who wins when individual rights conflict with collective well-being? Is flourishing best understsood as an individual or shared concept?

In the 18th century, economist Adam Smith’s conception of the invisible hand led us to believe that acting in our own self-interest drives better economic outcomes for all. It allows us the convenient impression that individual and collective flourishing are basically the same thing. Prioritising our own well-being becomes not only permissible but virtuous, contributing to happiness for the whole world. 

Since then, individual freedoms have been elevated to something of a sacred right in the west. This is reflected in steadily increasing individualism scores in western capitalist economies.  A high score on the Hofstede individualisation index suggests a culture in which the primary ethic is to look after yourself and your immediate family, where independence is valued highly. A low score indicates a more collectivist culture with priority given to groups, and interdependence being emphasised. The USA tops the rankings for individualism on 91 out of 100, with Australia a close second on 90. Out of interest, China scores 20 and Indonesia 14. 

In the west, these scores suggest we have come to understand flourishing almost exclusively as an individual measure.

There are signs that this cultural bias is creating its own tensions.

It turns out that exercising a freedom to use your property for an extravagant Christmas show impacts on the freedoms of neighbours to enjoy their peace and quiet. As self-proclaimed Mr Christmas says “nobody is going to stop me from what I believe is my mission, which is to spread the joy of Christmas to other people“. 

The current religious discrimination debate in Australia reveals the cracks of taking any individual right to a point that ignores the impact of that right on others. 

It is increasingly evident that maximising individual utility through constantly increasing consumption (the focus of conventional economic concepts of growth and standards of living) puts unsustainable pressure on the ecosystems and balance of the planet that is the only current home for that same economy. 

Cancel culture reveals the harsh inflection point when an individual’s assessment of what is authentic to them conflicts with the shifting sands of the views of the tribe.

Adam Smith may have unlocked the secret to expanding production and consumption, but perhaps we expected too much of him in believing that this provided the key to sustainable human wellbeing.

The inescapable lesson from our friend with the Christmas lights is that being a good neighbour requires some constraint on our individual freedoms. Most of us choose to compromise some of that freedom to be on good terms with the people we share a fence with. We share a common identity and have a shared purpose (a safe, peaceful and mutually respectful neighbourhood) and moderate our behaviour to contribute to that goal. Most people don’t need a court injunction to understand that principle.

How is this relevant to those in positions of leadership in organisations? In a time where the great resignation is upon us, ESG initiatives are driving entire organisational restructures, and diversity, inclusion and belonging committees are proliferating, we think it is enormously relevant.

What ties these threads together is that they all reflect the growing acknowledgment that our businesses exist in systems of interdependence. Communities flourish more when organisations are connected with the impact of their operations on those communities (from which employees are often drawn). Organisational cultures are healthiest when employees and other stakeholders are welcome to bring their diverse contribution to shared goals.

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Even those in highly individualistic cultures crave a sense of belonging – seminal research by Baumeister & Leary confirms that it is a fundamental human need. Susan Pinker provides data in her book The Village Effect which indicates that a sense of belonging and human contact has a greater impact on health and longevity than giving up smoking.

Andrew Leigh’s book Disconnected statistically tracks declining participation rates in a number of community expressions in Australia. Over that same time, Edelman’s trust barometer indicates long-term declines in trust in public institutions and government (with spikes during crises such as the initial response to Covid). 

Our western culture is providing fewer and fewer institutions that offer a meaningful place for belonging. We no longer converge so readily around our extended family, a uniformly observed religion, or even a shared sense of what it means to belong to a nation. While that has created greater room for individual expression, it also leaves a gap in our shared identity.

The opportunity for organisations to step into this vacuum and provide a shared sense of belonging is profound. Edelman’s research shows that as trust in governments has declined, people are identifying more closely with and placing increased trust in their employer.

“Employers are now seen as one of the most trusted institutions in Australia, with 78% trusting their employer over business generally (63%), government (61%)  and media (51%).”

Employers provide economic security, social intercourse in long-term relationships, and the capacity to connect individual priorities with meaningful purpose. When combined effectively, individuals will readily compromise some individual freedom for that sense of belonging and shared purpose. These will be organisations with high trust internally and externally, connected with their stakeholders, aware of their impact on their people and their communities, and contributing to a hopeful future.

The flip side is also true. Employers that treat their staff only as a means to generate wealth, or which fail to connect employee effort to shared goals that are meaningful, or which fail to create cultures of inclusion, or which fail to empower people at all levels to make a meaningful contribution, or which ignore the impact of their operations on their communities, will be enormously vulnerable to emerging existential risk. Employee and community activism, growth in litigation, talent shortage, poor engagement and regulatory action are all symptoms of an organisation that fails to create a sense of neighbourhood.

This can sound daunting to busy leaders with all sorts of demands on their time. It need not. Nobody expects this to be secured overnight. Even better, it is not something that can be delivered only by competent leaders – it is a shared responsibility. 

Our conviction is that it starts with clarity of purpose, and that is a singular responsibility of leaders. That enlivens all of the connections and relationships of shared flourishing.

A fascinating side story in the Christmas fight documentary is the perspective of the long-suffering wife of Mr Christmas. All she really wanted was to raise her kids in a community where they knew and liked their neighbours. She wanted to bake and share cookies. 

Her neighbours would have liked her if they were able to get to know one another. They shared the same purpose.