Toxic Business Consciousness

One of the unique aspects to the definition of conscious business you will find here is that a business can be highly conscious and be hugely damaging, cynical and even corrupt.

The mainstream definitions of conscious business take a view that being “conscious” means being benevolent, and it isn’t surprising that the words “ethical” and “sustainable” are attached to many “conscious” businesses. So, a conscious business is one that is more socially and ethically aware and applies these into a more “conscious” approach to what they do. In essence, a conscious business is a “conscience business”!

This is a very laudable approach because the use of the term conscious to signify social responsibility is a timely and needed antidote to much of the greed, socially and environmentally insensitive, win-lose-obsessed capitalism that has brought about the recent global economic collapse. Greed is seen as short-term, short-sighted, and ultimately narrow-minded. A conscious business improves its awareness by improving its behaviour! Essentially the organisation wakes up to itself and its social responsibility and impact.

And yet it is quite possible to be very aware of one’s actions that are harmful of others. In literature, in film, in religious and mythological traditions, the “devil” is a very conscious being – clever, sharp and aware of all the scenarios. True, some businesses lack consciousness when they behave unethically, but others are very sharply conscious, aware of all the variables, impacts, and even the laws they are breaking, and still they decide to act, cleverly managing and masking those actions. A conscious business can be good or evil.

So, when a business reaches a high level of consciousness, it could be playing the law in ways that undermine the spirit of that law, manipulating customers, suppliers, employees and stakeholders in all kinds of damaging ways that maximise its own profits. It can be spinning the truth into a tissue of clever, within-the-law (or not) lies, it can be playing one group off against another, it can even be cheating, creating addiction and dependency, polluting and distorting, all by design, all as part of a set of highly self-aware conscious choices.

A business can be highly conscious and using that consciousness to become a good citizen in the local or global economy. Or it could be deploying that consciousness in devilish ways that poison humanity, leaving it, as a corporate being, largely untouched and unharmed in at least the medium term. A conscious business can be nourishing or toxic for its stakeholders. It may even know that part of its toxic behaviour is also poisoning itself, but has developed clever and smart defences and ways of ensuring it remains largely able to continue. This is the key issue. The dominant view of conscious businesses sees consciously unethical behaviour as being ultimately a sign of lack of consciousness because, in the end, it was all come back on the corporation engaging in unethical activity. Not always so. The genius that come with high consciousness can allow corporate entities to develop that can become very resilient to their own partly self-inflicted toxic behaviour. They can bear court cases, customer backlashes in the short-term, employee rebellions, and still continue in the long-term. They know how to take the hit for a longer term self-beneficial game plan.

So, in our model of conscious business, we do not see “goodness” or “sustainability” as in input to the model. It is a possible output – but not always. Increasing business consciousness can indeed raise awareness in a corporation of the impact of its actions on its communities in ways that make it modify its behaviour to be more benevolent. But, equally, it can wake up a business to its potential to become sharply and cleverly poisonous in ways that can maximise profit. Examples include creating entanglement and addiction in customers and employees, suppliers and collaborators. It can pollute environments in ways that leave it legally untouched at least for years) and can also pollute minds with half-truths, manipulative messages and processes which corrupt aspects of its value chain into helping it to maximise profit and minimal cost to itself. And it remains entirely and deeply self-aware of what it is doing.

So, our model can begin to audit the level and quality of consciousness in a business. But a new dimension is also added that attempts to identify the toxicity of that consciousness in terms of its impact on its internal and external stakeholders. It isn’t enough to sat a conscious business is a good business. Too many sharply toxic and very conscious businesses know very well how to dress up that toxicity as benevolence. There are already some emerging definitions of toxic business. See Forbes, for example, which focuses on a toxic business as one of weak culture, distortion and lacking in truth (I’d call that a particular form of poison that weakens and starves of truth). Fast Company view toxic business as one that is a poor employer and which has a cold philosophy. In both cases the toxicity arises out of a certain lack of consciousness. A more academic view points to the self-poisoning that can happen at the top of the business: “Egocentric, or “narcissistic” managers can easily perpetuate a self-reinforcing pattern of behavior, one in which the conquered subordinate is transformed into an enabler, or an obsequious follower who willingly serves the boss.” (Reference here.). The authors contrast toxicity with “collaboration”. Collaboration tends to reduce toxicity. Of course, but only if that collaboration is genuine and not a smokescreen for skilled, conscious, underlying toxic behaviour such as hidden agendas and manipulation.

There’s a simple checklist for a toxic work place here, which ranges across conflict, poor management and demotivated employees. Once again, the definition doesn’t take in the possibility that the highest form of toxicity is the Monkshood of management and leadership – the poisonous behaviours that can’t be detected. The issue here is that, in some very conscious businesses, toxic behaviours are designed, and are specifically designed to be undetectable.

Here are a few of my own, admittedly anecdotal, examples of conscious toxic business behaviour (where consciousness here refers to being aware of both behaviour and motive in the actor, who still decides to proceed with the action):

* the poisoning of minds through direct deception, distortion and economy with the truth

* the poisoning of human bodies and physical environment through the distortion of product, service or process description and performance feedback

* the starvation of people, environment, or process in ways detrimental, in ways that are undetectable- this can include greed with resources, but also starvation of choice or of information that can create a greater sense of freedom of thought, feeling of action

* the manipulation of the behaviour of others in ways that harms their physical or mental well being – employees, customers, suppliers, stakeholders (for example, create fear in employees who work beyond their paid hours in order not to get fired or have their “card marked” – this is often dressed up as “ambitious leadership”

* the exploitation of work forces or customer groups in ways that harm their physical, mental or social well being in ways that also “spin” legality

* the creation of collusions of mediocrity where openness and honesty are framed always a dysfunctional behaviour and “troublemaking”, thus starving people and situations of truthfulness

* the creation of entanglement through contracting and pressured expectation that leaves employees feeling imprisoned at work, customers and suppliers tied in ways that make them feel “chained”. Conscious businesses often frame this cleverly as “benevolent” entanglement.

* the creation of technological, future shock, putting people into trance states where lack of understanding and lethargy create zombie-like compliance, and where they feel overwhelmed by technological change that leaves them feeling drained by apparent choice and information overload

Just as physical poisoning involves the introduction of substances harmful to the human being into it, toxic business can involve the physical poisoning of people and environments. But it can also involve the creation and implementation of systems and business processes that starve people and groups of truthfulness, poison minds and understanding, manipulate truth, hide one process or substance as another, to pretend something is beneficial when it is harmful, to create lethargy, addiction and paralysis, to engender conflict via manipulation and distortion. And also to create stress and pressure that harms humans in ways that could have been avoided. Toxic business is a new variable in highly conscious businesses. Of course, a business can be very low in consciousness and be toxic. It can also be non-toxic! Here the focus is on the fact that with self-awareness comes responsibility, but also comes the possibility and potential to abuse that newly won consciousness and to become toxic – poisonous to the “other”.

So, our model tries to measure and assess consciousness, but it also adds the possibility of an extra dimension – the toxicity of the conscious business.

And what then, if anything, can be done?

The most conscious toxic businesses will be attempting to fly under the radar of detection. They will be skilled at lowering the consciousness of individuals, groups, even whole communities around them so that the poison remains undetected, ideally in perpetuity. Here detection becomes about legal investigation, of “smoking out”, of “outing”, of bringing that which is hidden out in the open – naming the devil with evidence. And, like Moriarty, the most conscious toxic businesses will be a match even for Sherlock Holmes himself. But here, detoxification has to come from confrontation.

There will also be conscious and toxic businesses who, though highly conscious businesses, have started to self-poison. Here the toxicity turns in on the organisation. The business, for example, can start to believe its own lies, and public scandal or even physical disasters such as an oil spill or a train crash can then force the toxicity out into the gaze of public inquiry. Here detoxification comes from scrutiny and public exorcism.

There will then also be highly conscious businesses who have elements within (shareholders, certain leaders and influencers) and also from outside who (consultants, the media and customer groups) who start to draw attention to the worst elements of the toxicity. The business may go into internal conflict as certain toxic behaviours are outed as unacceptable. Here the business needs to shift towards a wish to detoxify. This can arise from customer protest, from a public scandal or an accident that snaps the business out of its one form of sleep – the sleep in which it isn’t entirely aware of its toxic impact. Here the moral conscience awakens in all or part of the leadership in a kind of Ebeneezer Scrooge-like awakening. It can still be that the really toxic conscious business pretends at moral awakening in order to minimise damage to profits over the longer term. Often apparent changes in behaviour simply revert and fade back to toxicity over the longer term game. But some companies will detoxify through moral purging and specific changes to values, policies and practices, with independent scrutiny or external and internal validation. The business transforms to become benevolently conscious rather than toxically conscious.

It all boils down to whether the business is aware of its deepest motives for action. If these motives are based purely on profit at ANY cost, then the toxic business will simply attempt to continually enhance its consciousness in order to maintain its profits and growth, leveraging toxicity always to that end. It will only behave benevolently when this serves short term profitability, never from an authentically experienced sense of a wish to do the good without being toxic. It will even play the game of ethics, social responsibility and environmentalism, but purely as a calculating move in its game to maximise its own economic power and resource achievement. But where there is even a hint that the toxic behaviour isn’t entirely intended, and that a critical mass of people inside the business are only behaving in toxic ways out of fear, trance or manipulation, then there are seeds for a possible shift to detoxification. But it might take massive intervention to achieve that. And sometimes it needs only a minimal intervention that sends the whole toxic tower of cards crashing down.

Thoughts on this most welcome.

Other useful links:

The People Groups’s 24 item list of a toxic business culture.

Kickbully’s definition sees toxicity in terms of bullying at work

The American Management Association also offer a list

Business Knowhow focuses on toxic employees

This is part of a paper presented at the MIT-SLIM Conference, Slovenia, 2013


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Sue says:

    I hadn’t heard the term ‘conscious business’ before, but I recognise the toxic effect in schools too, especially ‘the manipulation of the behaviour of others in ways that harms their physical or mental well being’ – with both teachers and pupils being the victims. Interesting that, as you point out, ‘conscious’ is generally taken to mean a good thing and of benefit. Like ‘creativity’, which again carries a ‘feelgood’ factor and is seen as desirable, but it too can be put to an unethical use. So do we need a vocabulary or a guide to outing toxic organisational behaviour? How to get back to ethics in business? Lying and cheating in order to make a profit have become the norm. My mother, aged 90, comes from a different era and talks of ‘trusted firms’ and a ‘nice man who she didn’t want to upset’ (when I questioned her outrageously high plumber ‘s bill). This type of thinking appears to be almost unknown in modern business practice. I would also be interested in hearing more about
    ‘the creation of technological, future shock, putting people into trance states where lack of understanding and lethargy create zombie-like compliance’.
    Thanks Paul

  2. Great idea Paul, great piece.

    For me, you seem to be drawing attention through the metaphor of conscious business to the bigger picture of society and life itself.

    So its difficult to comment with any hope of making much sense 🙂

    But I will just say it struck me that this is perhaps partly about how consciousness is understood. If consciousness is some kind of thing that resides in one specific being – either a business or an individual in a business – then your model makes great sense, even while it seems somehow “wrong” that some companies should be toxic.

    It seems wrong that some people or businesses should be able to “get away” with this while us good folk behave “better”. Morality and superiority quickly emerge, in me at least.

    But if consciousness is not that, if it is perhaps more something of which we all partake, if it is more relational – ie found in the gaps ‘between’ us all – then perhaps we *need* unethical, immoral people and businesses in our world?

    Perhaps other people are only unethical by my standards? I am no biblical scholar but aren’t there some quotes about “the mote in one’s own eye” and “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”?

    Maybe this is what these refer to?

    And maybe having places to put “my bad stuff” helps me somehow?

    Of course, people will say there are absolute moral standards. And, of course, I think and feel the same way. But perhaps I need to ask myself where those thoughts and feelings come from, if I am to be truly ‘conscious’.

    Where did I learn what was right and wrong? Or was I born able to make these judgements?

    Where does that leave us? Thinking about consciousness more relationally helps me in two ways:

    1) I can remind myself to be empathic, respectful and still congruent towards people and businesses who don’t behave as I would like them to. After all, maybe I am not so pure myself?

    2) I can be more accepting of a world in which both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ exist – I can, as a good friend of mine says (probably out of context, this) “ignore the difference and get on making a difference”.

    In other words, I can take action and do my bit to be the best, most ethical person I can in my business interactions with others. While letting others live as they wish to live.

    But beyond all the philosophy, this is a great post, and I think the idea of toxicity is fertile territory for consultative action – both problem-solving-oriented and appreciative.

    Great stuff.

  3. I think you make some very important points here, Pete.

    Poison is also often used to heal. Snake venom is part of the bite’s antidote. Many substances that are poisonous in one form can be used in anything from foods to medicines to building materials!

    The issue of toxicity is that the substance(or behaviour), in a particular form, is conscious deployed in ways which create harm to others. In this case, conscious toxic behaviour is damaging to everything but profit maximisation.

  4. Yes, but only profit maximisation in the short-term?

    The Firms of Endearment studies and other similar ones seem to show that longer-term profitability and stock market performance is related to behaving ethically and morally.

  5. So, here’s a dive into the world of toxic conscious business. (And you might say, conspiracy theory).

    Highly toxic conscious businesses may well be playing a long term game having calculated that the return to shareholders and impact on profitability of being “good’ conscious is too detrimental in terms of detoxification.

    Instead they have focused on hiding toxicity, and also bearing toxicity – paying fines, even engendering their own manageable protest movements and scandals, accepting compensation responsibilities, having calculated that the longer term benefit of maintaining toxicity is worth it.

    The studies may themselves be, not evidence of a link between longer term sustainable profit and ethics, but indeed evidence that the most conscious toxic businesses are more than able to fly under the radar of the studies.

    I’m serious. I believe that the most conscious and toxic businesses are more than able to not only play the game, but also to direct it to their own ends.

  6. Barbara Brown says:

    The concept of highly conscious, amoral or immoral business leadership is a useful one. However, let’s not suppose this behavior is for the benefit of the shareholders. The conspiracy to elevate executive salaries is a perfect example. I’m on your board; your on mine; we each approve the other’s excesses, which is of course dollars directly out of the shareholder’s pocket into the bank accounts of consciously corrupt, but totally legal executives. And of course they just paid with shareholder dollars for a study that showed that their excessive compensation was perfectly in line with the industry standards.

    Being more developed and more conscious doesn’t necessarily make you a good person. In fact, honest, but not quite so clever middle managers, professionals and small business owners are often on the receiving end of attacks from clever, but ruthless Wall Street insiders. Perhaps one of the things that conscious consultants should be doing is helping the honest little guys protect themselves from these preditors. Of course, the ruthless preditors pay better so the most conscious, but unscrupulous onsultants are helping them cover up.

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