Thursday, 30 March 2017

How Confucius can help us liberate organisations


Confucius dedicated his life to convincing Chinese leaders that they must act virtuously. But as modern organisations struggle to deal with the increased complexity of the network era, Confucian thinking provides a valuable reminder that we as individuals must strive to transcend the cultures of the organisations in which we find ourselves. Let me explain.

More than ever before, organisations are shaping the human condition by determining how we live and work. To improve the human condition, we therefore have to ensure that we are consciously shaping our organisations, and not simply being subservient to their cultures and values.

Culture and tradition have historically been the way in which stories are passed on, and the way in which the human species remembers. But the networked era gives us access to so much information that we are able to construct a much more personal, individual understanding of the human condition.

The networked era makes it possible for us to realise our individuality within a community. In fact, the network era demands that we do so - this is what is driving the demand for authenticity. The opportunity of the networked era is that we no longer have to hide behind organisational culture - each person can create their own culture, their own unique set of beliefs and values.

This is what it means to be enlightened: to be free of the passive conditioning of culture and to actively shape your beliefs and values. And it is this enlightenment that drives engagement.

But isn't this dangerous? What sets our moral compass if we free ourselves from the tyranny of culture? Is it the transparency and authenticity that the network era brings? If we are fully exposed, we cannot hide behind cultural practices - it is the radical transparency of the network that makes us accountable, the fact that we are fully visible to others. This is where Confucian thinking is invaluable: if we abuse this new-found power and act without virtue, we risk being publicly shamed and losing our credibility.

Organisations are sub-cultures. But while the network era demands that we realise our individuality, the hierarchical power structures of our organisations make it almost impossible for individuals to challenge the dominant culture. It is unsurprising that employees become disengaged when confronted with the colossal walls of organisational culture.

A core function of leaders then is to transform the lives of the people they lead. But in the capitalist era, leadership has become too focused on making money. The capitalist culture of shareholders has made business leaders beholden to the profit-driven demands of people external to the organisation, rather than to improving the lives of those working within the organisation. This results in many leaders breaking Confucius' Golden Rule: "Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself".

In the network era, the challenge is for every employee to create and adhere to their own set of beliefs and values. The radical transparency of the network age demands authenticity, and enables us to challenge those leaders and organisations who act without virtue. If we are to reinvent organisations for the benefit of society and humanity, we must strive us to remain autonomous in the face of the dominant organisational culture, and consciously choose to act according to our own personal set of beliefs and values.

And, as Confucius says, to conduct ourselves with virtue.

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