The Uncommon Common Good

This article was written for the Just Jinx column in Ningbo Guide, one of only 6 remaining independent magazines in China.  Since it is about running a small business, it makes sense to share it with our clients. – Jinx

We run a small business and in the last six months we have experienced a revolving door of replacement employees who are unable to grasp our ethics and company culture (it is not a difficult culture to comprehend and we are far from stodgy, stubborn old fashioned people).  Each of these ex-employees had a set of skills that we needed and each lacked just about everything beyond that.  They don’t stay with us for long for the simple reason that we just can’t talk with them.  Talk- as in authentically converse, exchange ideas, listen and have meaningful dialogue.

These individuals, typically between the ages of 24 and 39, all shared a common thread.  They have little or no grounding in the humanities and their social relations such as making conversation, conflict resolution, teaching, learning, discussing ideas, active listening, problem solving and sharing are negligible.  Character attributes such as politeness, humor, empathy, morality, and respect are not their forte and they simply could not grasp the needs and desires of others in order to balance those needs and desires with that of the company’s, the customers, other workers and themselves.

The sad part is that our little firm is hardly alone in our experience.  All around the world you can hear the same lamentation.  I have never wanted to feel a generation gap and yet I struggle with today’s workforce (at least in my homeland) and am increasingly finding that I just don’t like many of them as people, co-workers or fellow citizens.  If it takes a village, I think I’d rather do without them in my hut.

It is not necessarily their fault and my generation has failed in many respects.  For decades our education systems have cut back on the arts and humanities and focused on skills, getting jobs and getting ahead- despite the measurable fact that the humanities are critical for a functioning society.  For years nations have been pinched financially and too many have been caught between ideological polarities that have divided and paralyzed them. Humanities, values and principles are given lip service in comparison to how we are infatuated with ourselves, cherish money, demand our individual independence and dismiss the concept of common good.

The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. The contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage”. The Catholic religious tradition, which has a long history of struggling to define and promote the common good, characterizes it as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” The common good, then, consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we depend, work in a manner that benefits all people. This same notion works in the business world.

The humanities teach us about the conduct of life.  They help us understand ourselves better.  We become stronger since we see our experiences reflected in the experience of others through different cultures and times.  We are foolish not to understand that the study of how people process and document the human experience through philosophy, religion, art, dance, theater, music, history and language connects us to those that have come before us and prepares us for the future.  The humanities do not exist in ivory towers.  Quite the reverse, argues William Adams chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities, USA.  Humanities “touch the place in which most of us live most of the time. It has to do with our values, about our fundamental ideas, the things that motivate us, the things that we get up in the morning and that take us to work and make us who we are.”

“Technological advances that make life faster, more fun, more entertaining, and easier to navigate are also consuming our time and energy while eliminating avenues for learning vital concepts about work. And pop psychologists have pushed parents to focus on building self-esteem in their children, creating at least two generations of me-centric workers. No wonder so many employers are use terms like entitled, disengaged, unmotivated, and disloyal when describing their current workforce and potential labor pool’, writes Eric Chester, author of Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce.

Younger people are the life-line to my generation.  We need them to keep us hopeful, spirited, inspired and challenged.  We need them as partners and innovators and we need them to be courageous citizens and co-creators.  In short, we need them for the common good.

Appeals to the common good have also emerged in considerations of business’ social responsibilities, discussions of environmental pollution, debates concerning our lack of investment in education, and deliberations on the problems of crime and poverty. Everywhere, it seems, social commentators are declaring that our most fundamental social problems grow out of a widespread pursuit of individual interests and an abandonment of common good.

The pursuit of individual interest seems to be winning.  People have different ideas of what “good” looks like but the discussion I hear appears distorted and resembles a foil for our individual and cultural narcissism.   I don’t think it is nearly as complicated or political as it need be.  A regard for the common good does demand of us a responsibility for the life and well-being of other people, and teaches us that our own good is inseparable from a life lived in solidarity with others.

Put the notion of common good in the work place and it’s not very complicated.  If you think only of yourself and arrogantly believe you know better than your superiors or co-workers, it is hard to imagine any of them being in your corner.  If you do not reach out to others, it will not take long before you become useless to the whole.  If you don’t honor a mission to serve clients as people, not merely customers, you’ll be out the door.  If you assume ‘older’ means ignorant, you will be labeled a spoiled rotten punk.  If you announce yourself as an expert and didn’t bother to learn about those that walked before you in your field, you will be considered ignorant. And if you’re stupid enough to whine about work on Facebook, you will likely be perceived as a weak, blubbering idiot. You get the picture.

In our micro world it is the younger generation that is told to turn in their office key and thereby themselves.  It’s heartbreaking.  It’s a damn shame that I have to teach basic life skills and hold hands with someone I am paying a living wage, just so they get a job done.  I do not want to be around anyone who is overly convinced of their own abilities because, while in my mid 60’s, I am not even convinced of my own.  The notion that some employees seem to think they are owed something just for showing up is a difficult pill to swallow for owners who put it all on the line every day. I do not want anyone who is bitter because they have to take direction from someone else and I certainly do not want anyone around me who has never pondered the word ‘reverence’.  I am exhausted from entitlement manifesting itself in a resistance to feedback, an inclination to overestimate talents and accomplishments, a tendency to be demanding and overbearing and to blame others for mistakes, and little sense of trustworthiness. In short, I am weary of those with arrested emotional development, functioning as if they are about 7 years old with needs that must be met first.

The good news is that we have managed to reciprocally retain and value several superb, mature, focused, caring, and intelligent co-workers.  It is to them that we bow and owe the fact that we can enjoy each day.

I hope I am preaching to the choir, and I probably am.  If so, please forgive my rampage.  I, too, am learning.

The next time I interview someone for a position I will take the advice of some of the big players and ask them some really weird questions in the hopes that I may learn more about them then they may wish to reveal.  Here are a few you may wish to use, too:

  • Tell me about a time when you made a major mistake or failed at something. Tell me what led up to it, how you dealt with it and, most importantly, what you learned from it.
  • Tell me the books you read as a child and the books you read now.
  • Tell me which artists, musicians, actors and dancers have affected your life.
  • Don’t tell me you’re literate, can spell and know grammar. Prove it by writing a few paragraphs about how you are feeling right now.
  • Give me an example of a time when you could not accomplish something on your own. What did you do?
  • Tell me what roles older people play in your world.
  • Tell if you have ever actively imagined you were blind and deaf and tried to maneuver around your home.
  • Tell me about the last time you were scolded.
  • What in life fascinates you?
  • What would you do if a homeless person came into the office and asked if there was something he/she could do for work?
  • If you had six months with no obligations or financial constraints, what would you do with the time?
  • Tell me what the word ‘diversity’ means to you in your personal life.
  • If you had six months with no obligations or financial constraints, what would you do with the time?
  • If you wrote a memoir what would the title be?
  • If your house was on fire, what 5 things would you save?
  • Explain the theory of relativity.
  • Will you pick up the phone if I call you at midnight to ask you for something?
  • If you started your own company, what would you value in your company culture?
  • If you got rid of one state in the United States, which state would it be and why?
  • What songs best describe your work ethic?
  • Name three previous Nobel or Pulitzer Prize winners.
  • Speak or sing a nursery rhyme you remember.
  • Do you know any disabled people and what role do they play in your life?

Maybe more questions like this will bring me back to the ‘common good’ and the hunger I have for it in our business.  It isn’t a silly old fashioned notion.  It doesn’t give us formulas for how to serve, love or be good custodians.  It doesn’t tell us how to be good bosses, workers, partners, parents or neighbors.  In the end, it points us towards a mystery, toward something as limitless as the destiny of humanity.  It gives us a larger than life drama to live by and allows us to see more clearly our own petty scripts.

Isn’t this mystery something we need at work and the place we spend 99,117 hours of our lifetime?