Is Your Business Making You Values Blind?

by Lanny Goodman on May 4, 2008

I was having a conversation with a client the other day and we got to talking about one of the more insidious risks in business, creeping values blindness.  

The classic example is the tobacco industry.  One hundred years ago, tobacco was an honorable business to be in.  But as it grew and became a very valuable (financially) institution, and knowledge of the deleterious effects of tobacco became known, its members found themselves unable to make appropriate value judgments, such as saying, “We really should get out of this business because it’s killing people.”  Instead (as further discovery revealed) they began figuring out how to target women and children, develop additives that made cigarettes more addictive and generally compounded the felony of remaining in that business.  The ultimate expression of this was the spectacle of the nine CEOs of the largest tobacco companies on national television lying to Congress about their knowledge and activities.

As our knowledge and understanding evolve, we have to be very careful that our business doesn’t stunt our growth.  The case for global warming is another example.  The only major country in which there is any serious debate about global warming is the US.  Why?  Because of a very carefully orchestrated disinformation campaign by the oil companies.  (For extensive documentation of this just Google “global warming disinformation”.)  Given the potential impacts of climate change, how can the people involved justify these kinds of actions which by any standard of measure are immoral?  

In my writing on self-management, I’ve made the case that people’s behavior is a product of the ecosystem in which they work.  It’s not difficult to see how people get locked into a system where there is way too much peer pressure for individuals who have qualms to be able to change the system.  The system has way too much inertia to allow for a voice of sanity to be heard.  Meanwhile, the participants in the system are stuck in a moral dead end.  The knowledge of the inappropriateness of what they are doing is there, but they are unable to respond so they have no choice but to resolve this cognitive dissonance by conjuring up some justification for their behavior.  Taken to its extreme, this can have serious legal implications (e.g. tobacco).  For the entrepreneur, the issue is more one of developing a case of values blindness which stunts our spiritual growth.

Our understanding of what is healthy and in alignment with nature is growing by leaps and bounds.  Is your business built around an obsolete model?  If your business has to do with food, large energy consumption, large percentage of cost or value in throw-away packaging, or is of little intrinsic value (e.g. impulse purchases), this would be a good time to think long and hard about how to transform your business.

Would there be a cost?  Sure.  Would there be dislocation?  Sure.  But think of it this way, someone out there without the liability of the organizational and market inertia you have is laying awake at night trying to figure out how to displace you with products and services that make yours either irrelevant or unappealing to generations of consumers who are looking at what they buy in very different ways than has historically been the case.  

Ultimately the issue is that in times of great change, the status quo is the most dangerous strategy.  Not only does it bring a significant business risk, but values blindness is a significant personal risk as well. 

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