Wrestling with the Angel: Modern Businesses Need Their Staff to Take Their Consciences to Work

At the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh you can see Paul Gauguin’s marvellous painting, ‘Vision After the Sermon.’ It depicts a group of Breton women in traditional costume, and visualises a bible story they have just heard in church: Jacob, journeying back to Canaan, spends the night alone on a riverside and encounters a mysterious angel who wrestles with him until dawn.

I have always liked this painting. I like the bold colours and Breton hats, the curious perspective and the mysterious theme. I like the juxtaposition of the present and the past, the real and the imagined. I like the idea of a man wrestling, not with a devil, but with an angel.

Many people have interpreted this scene as a depiction of someone struggling with their conscience. We see in it a sleepless night of doubt and dilemmas; of internal struggle and indecision; the agony of ethical qualms and quandaries, puzzles and problems.

When I first started work, in the red-blooded business environment of the late ‘80s, there was a sense that individual conscience belonged at home. One’s work behaviour should be driven by a singular pursuit of commercial success and ultimately shareholder value. ‘Whatever it takes’ was the spirit of the age.

Business culture at that time was not devoid of ethics. Rather there was a belief that the market aggregated the self-interested behaviour of individuals into a force for collective social good.

As the economist Joseph Stiglitz observed, ‘In a way, many people think that Adam Smith gave us a free pass; a way not to think about morality, because what Adam Smith said was that individuals in pursuit of their self-interest are led, as if by an invisible hand, to the general wellbeing of society.’

I’d say things have moved on since then. Nowadays we recognise that businesses have multiple stakeholders; that they have duties, not just to shareholders, but to partners, colleagues and consumers, and to the wider public. Nowadays most people in business do not assume self-interest will on its own create general wellbeing.

In recent times, as consumers increasingly expect corporate transparency, and as they increasingly hold businesses to account for their actions, then companies have embraced the unifying power of Purpose and Values as a means of directing their ethical behaviour.

It seems fair to ask whether clearly articulated Purpose and Values, in harness with better regulation, are sufficient to navigate the ethical challenges we face in the modern business environment.

Would Purpose and Values have prevented the malpractice of the financial crisis? Would they have avoided the failures of Enron, BP and Volkswagen? Should they have saved Pepsi or United from their recent PR disasters?

Well, they might have helped. But I’m not so sure they would have been sufficient in themselves.

The problem is that times of transformational change throw up more ethical issues than stable times. Category reinvention, while enhancing consumers’ lives, may have a negative impact on jobs, communities, the environment and fair trade. Operational restructure, while increasing efficiency, may also diminish working conditions and safety. Sub-contraction, while reducing cost, may also reduce responsibility. Creative destruction leaves in its wake a new landscape of ethical dilemmas.

I’d suggest that in this complex and changing environment, it’s not enough for colleagues to follow a collective corporate Purpose. I suspect that shared Purpose leaves a business exposed to corporate complacency and groupthink. Rather I think the ethical performance of any organisation is dependent on the extent to which individuals within that organisation take their consciences to work - because it’s only when individuals within a group wrestle with that group’s ethical dilemmas that you can safeguard against the group’s unethical behaviour.

It’s a curious thing to suggest that people need to be encouraged to bring their consciences to work. But we should not underestimate the day-to-day pressure on staff to deliver numbers and to conform. There is a gravitational pull towards narrow, short-term, commercial considerations; an ongoing belief that whistle-blowing represents disloyalty or disaffection. So, yes, the active engagement of individual consciences does need encouragement.

There’s one more reason why we need individual staff members to take their consciences to work, now more than ever.

When a brand’s ads appear next to extremist content on YouTube, we naturally ask questions about the people that placed them there. But of course people didn’t place them there. An algorithm did. Inevitably YouTube’s inclination is to work on a new algorithm to prevent it. But an algorithm doesn’t have a conscience. Automation enhances the need for humanity.

So, we need to more actively engage individual consciences in the workplace as a means of navigating the ever more complex challenges of the new economy; as a means of insuring businesses against groupthink; as a counterpoint to the ill effects of automation.

It’s only by wrestling with the angels that we give ourselves a fair chance of reaching the right decisions for our businesses and the broader community.

As the saying goes: ‘If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t.’

No. 137