There are now more calls than ever to transform companies into more socially and environmentally responsible and committed ecosystems. However, beyond the various possible strategies, we believe it is important to realise that to be authentic and successful, all these steps must begin with a first step: the strengthening of human values within the company.
Whether we are talking about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Purpose-driven companies, Quality of work Life (QWL), or putting human resources back into the heart of a company’s strategy, there has never been so much expectation for a humane and responsible company model where working life allows everyone to flourish by finding meaning, equity and respect.
Of course, this ideal model has to come to terms within a context of globalised markets, financial constraints, recurrent crises and rapid changes, but the good news is that this evolution, beyond its societal benefits, provides companies with a real gain in value and performance1Salima Benhamou and Marc-Arthur Diaye, Responsabilité des entreprises et compétitivité – Évaluation et approche stratégique, France Stratégie (2016) + Laurence Morvan, Les entreprises responsables, championnes de la croissance, Accenture (2019) + Lindsay Delevingne, Anna Gründler, Sean Kane and Tim Koller, The ESG premium: New perspectives on value and performance, McKinsey (2020)..
Today, a growing number of companies are moving in this direction, and it is legitimate to consider that we are facing a profound and lasting change in mindsets and in the strategic management model of companies.
The risk of a fragmented approach
Although virtuous, a social transformation process is not easy to implement. While the first step is obviously to comply with legislative requirements, this should not be enough, because:
- it would give the image of a management that is only interested in social and societal issues because they are legally imposed, which could be counterproductive; and
- it would deprive the company of a powerful lever for reinventing itself and equipping itself with the best assets it needs to succeed, and to face the years to come in the best possible condition.
However, we believe that two factors are at the root of the difficulties encountered by managers and members of boards of directors and executive committees in understanding what might be the best strategy to adopt:
- The multiplicity of areas concerned within the company, affecting the majority of its activities and relationships.
- The diversity of possible actions within each of these areas.
Today, the strategy and management consulting market has never been so fragmented. For several years, an ever-increasing number of players and disparate offers have been grafted onto it, making it difficult for the executive to understand the real impact of the promises made. The health crisis has only amplified the situation.
The complex reading and the abundance of choices then create the risk of committing the company to one-off actions not supported by a long-term vision and strategy. However, to be meaningful and truly effective, the social transformation of the company must be based on a clear and coherent vision and strategy.
If we consider the seven core subjects of social responsibility21. Organizational governance, 2. Human rights, 3. Labour practices, 4. The environment, 5. Fair operating practices, 6. Consumer issues, 7. Community involvement and development. defined by the ISO 26000 standard, which gives the guidelines on how organizations can improve their social responsibility, they all relate to the human being in its individuality, interactions and environment.
This is why we believe that an approach that aims to place the human being at the centre of the company’s concerns induces an initial reflection on the company itself, starting from the employees and the company’s culture.
What is the first action to be taken for the employees and the company’s culture?
The vision we are defending is the result of two considerations:
- We live in a time when human values are under threat, as we are reminded of daily by geopolitical events. However, if we are looking for an ecosystem whose scale and qualities would be conducive to the defence and development of human values, then the company appears to be an ideal place. This is a serious source of inspiration for all companies thinking about specifying their social missions.
- Moreover, human beings are by definition ultra-social, as we are biologically designed for a fundamentally cooperative way of life, and the modern professional context is no exception3Professor Dacher Keltner: “All the scientific studies contradict the central idea on which the Western intellectual tradition has developed, inspiring psychoanalysis, economics, and political and evolutionary theories, that human beings are structured to maximise their own self-interest at all times, making competition a norm and cooperation and kindness cultural conventions or deceptive acts hiding a deeper self-interest.” Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley.. Human values are the very foundation of the quality of human relations and cooperation, as they influence individual and collective behaviours, impacting the results of collaborative actions4A. E. Colbert, J. E. Bono and R. K. Purvanova, Flourishing via Workplace Relationships: Moving Beyond Instrumental Support, Academy of Management Journal (2016) + J. P. Stephens, E. Heaphy and J. E. Dutton, High-Quality Connections, The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (2011) + J. Hu and R. Liden, Making a Difference in the Teamwork: Linking Team Prosocial Motivation to Team Processes and Effectiveness, Academy of Management Journal (2015)..
This is why we believe that the first most coherent and effective step in supporting the aim for social transformation is to focus on strengthening human values within the company.
What are human values and how can they be developed?
We define human values as the values that arise from all mental and behavioural attitudes that create and strengthen the bonds between individuals, understanding and respecting the humanity that characterises and unites us.
Among these mental and behavioural attitudes, we find that some are particularly important to defend in the professional environment: kindness, civility, gratitude, trust, empathy and compassion.
We all spontaneously have a personal – and not completely objective – perception of each of these attitudes. And for a good reason: we have never had the opportunity to really study them to understand their biological origins, mental processes, preconceived ideas, benefits or the best way to express them.
Moreover, the company is by definition the place where we work together, whereas we have never learned how to work together.
Considering this, one begins to understand the value and necessity of training to strengthen human values and pro-social skills.
Of course, you don’t train teams to develop certain mental and behavioural attitudes in the same way that you train them in technical skills. However inspiring a trainer may be and however motivated people may be after the training, the real question is: what remains after one month, three months, and more than six months?
This is why the development of human values is a long-term process that involves a double requirement:
- The need for an appropriate teaching method.
- The need to embed human values in the company’s culture.
From human values to human skills
Developing human values consists in cultivating certain mental and behavioural attitudes: they are therefore linked to psychic mechanisms and brain activities which we know can evolve thanks to neuroplasticity. Thus, under the effects of learning and experience, it is possible to reduce certain mental and behavioural habits or to strengthen others into established and spontaneous qualities.
This is why human values are based on human skills that can be developed through specific training.
To be effective, this training must include three fundamental stages: knowledge, critical analysis and experience. The pedagogical objective is to establish a mental familiarity which is essential as it will foster a deep understanding of the skill to be developed and it will be the very cause of its experience. This mental familiarity is therefore the main driver of behavioural transformation.
Corporate culture as a vehicle for human values
Changing individual and collective behaviours in order to create a shared culture of human values is a gradual transformation process which, to be effective and sustainable, will require the formalisation of the fundamentals of the company’s culture.
The first step is to define the set of key values and behaviours that the company claims and how this set engages each of its employees. Then, the objective is to reflect on how these new elements can reshape the company’s missions, while remaining consistent with the long-term vision and strategy, and how this set can be translated into the company’s internal processes and social activities. Finally, these new values can also influence the company’s position in its market and the way it values its offer, responds to its customers’ needs and expectations and differentiates itself from its competitors.
Towards a set of strategic human skills
It is interesting to note that training teams to strengthen human values leads to the development of a plurality of essential human skills. Indeed, how could we strengthen pro-social skills without addressing resilience, and how could we increase resilience without taking into account the influence of emotions? Similarly, how could we improve emotional management without improving awareness of mental experiences? It is clear, then, that the development of human values leads to the development of a set of specific human skills which are interrelated and mutually reinforcing.
Such a set of human skills is profoundly beneficial to companies, as it determines the ability of each employee to observe, analyse and act in the most constructive way. Today, there is no doubt about the direct effects of these skills on the achievement of economic and social objectives. Whether we are talking about work atmosphere and engagement, customer satisfaction, capacity for innovation or adaptation, or financial results, human skills have a direct impact on the results of companies5J. K. Harter, F. L. Schmidt and T. L. Hayes, Business-Unit-Level Relationship Between Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Applied Psychology (2002) + T. Rath and J. Harter, The Economics of Wellbeing, Gallup (2002) + A. W. Woolley, C. F. Chabris, A. Pentland, N. Hashmi, and T. W. Malone, Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups, Science (2010).. This is why they can be described as strategic human skills.
A new vision
It is therefore on the foundations and benefits of a shared culture of human values that the company will be able to define, under the best conditions, its vision and the important stages of its social transformation strategy, strengthening its contribution to sustainable development.
It’s evident that the strategies for deploying a culture of human values are not the same for a company with 100 employees as for a global group with over 5,000 employees. Fortunately, in any context, there is always a possible relevant strategy: this is the beauty and the challenge of social transformation.
Laurent van Steenkiste & Valentina Dolara
Illustration de Luana Lloyd