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Is business dirty?

Woody Allen once said that sex is only dirty if you are doing it right. Lots of people think something similar about business.

Woody Allen once said that sex is only dirty if you are doing it right. Lots of people think something similar about business. There’s a narrative running from the American robber baron capitalists through Gordon Gekko and directly to The Apprentice and even The Wire, which says that business is some sort of dog-fight, a Darwinian scramble in which there are winners and losers.

And what counts as winning, in this story, is landing a fat bonus, a Porsche or a yacht. You probably have to act like a berk to win, but that doesn’t matter. Winning, and crushing your opponents, are what counts.

I was reminded of it when listening to Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this month when the writer Graham Linehan, who was being interviewed about his new play, complained that the presenters were trying to start an argument between him and a critic. He was right.

What was strangest about it was that the presenter seemed to think that his job was precisely to provoke disagreement, that dispute was somehow creative, that there would be a winner and a loser and that this would be a worthwhile thing. I barely need to mention the way that politicians howl and deride each other, also in the view that somehow conflict is a virtue. It must say something about our culture that verbal fisticuffs are our default position. Maybe the so-called Anglo-Saxon model is no more than a civilised version of a pub scrap, with IPOs instead of pool-cues.

But there is an alternative to this peculiarly gladiatorial, cojones-comparing worldview. Earlier this month the bank Coutts published a report looking at the qualities possessed by family businesses that give them a competitive advantage over non-family companies.

They came up with a list of five, one of which is that “family businesses are more likely to have values such as honesty, integrity and straightforwardness more deeply embedded within both the family and the business”.

The report went on: “Family businesses tend to be held together as much by soft issues as hard, economic ones” and said that these ethical principles “are higher on the business agenda than in non-family businesses and are often deeply embedded in the culture of the business over generations.” Which all seems about right.

But interestingly, the report goes on to admit that the five qualities are “viewed by others as weaknesses”. Who would think that honesty, integrity and straightforwardness are a weakness?

The answer is that far too many people do. Too many people think that honesty, integrity and straightforwardness belong in the seminary, and that the bottom line is better served by lying, loophole finding and spivvery.

Those in family businesses who subscribe to a different view – namely that good businesses is to create stability, long-term wealth and that this gives advantages to a whole community – ought to speak up more loudly in defence of doing business ethically. The berks have had it their own way for far too long.
 

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