There was a great Seinfeld episode from 1997 when George gets upset because a pigeon refuses to get out of the way of his car and he has to swerve to avoid hitting it. He ranted and raved about the fact that pigeons and humans have a deal, that being that pigeons are supposed to fly out of the way of drivers.
The concept of the “social compact (or contract)” goes back to the 17th century and philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They talk about the formation of a society with unwritten rules to which all members subscribe for their mutual benefit. Individuals give up some of their individual rights in return for certain protections and benefits from the society at large. These thinkers were major influences on both the American and French Revolutions. The compact is really a very simple algorithm- “If you do ____, you can expect to get _____ in return.”
What are the unspoken deals or contracts that we believe to be inherent in our current business relationships? Are they still relevant or are they passé? Are they objectively based? In that those that we can easily name are not truly contractual or part of any mutually agreed upon course of action, they probably do not rise above the level of beliefs held by many individuals. A belief is simply defined as a premise that is held by an individual to be true, even in the absence of any substantial proof. Yet beliefs are still important motivators and remain as part of the fabric that binds workers to companies, followers to leaders and perhaps customers to companies. These beliefs may continue to be held until evidence to the contrary stares them in the face.
For many years, the biggest belief was that if a worker did good work and remained loyal to the company, the company would be loyal to the worker, providing a pay check and a predictable, accessible standard of living. The second big belief was that if a student applied herself to her work, she would get into a good college, and from there land a good job that would then support the prototypical American life. Wow- those days are gone. Loyalty is not strong on either the employee or employer side of things. And we have learned that going to college can mean rolling up huge student loan debt, only to find out that there may be no job waiting when the formal education has been completed.
The deals today may be based more on individual corporate culture than societal belief. Let’s look at a few:
- · A belief in the boss who says work hard, produce and I have your back. In some cultures, leaders motivate workers, get their best work out of them and make sure that they are rewarded with recognition, additional compensation and promotion. That works for the individual and for the leader, who is evaluated on how well his team does. In others, a hard-charging, productive employee may find herself to be a threat to her boss’s security, so she is subject to having her boss back stab her or take credit for her successes. The boss looks out for himself only and doesn’t care about the future of his charges. Deal or no deal?
- · A belief in the boss who says we promote on merit. In healthy cultures, the measures of success are clear and objective enough for all to understand what it takes to move up. Transparency and consistency keep the deal intact. In other cultures, leaders want “wiggle room” so they keep the rules murky and the criteria subjective. Favorites get favoritism.
- · A belief that the rules are the rules and they apply to all equally. In strong cultures policies and procedures are applied evenly and consistently across the board, with the leaders holding themselves accountable to the same standards as all other employees. In other cultures, bosses may hold themselves to a separate standard, and may also allow certain employees to get away with breaches with a wink and a nod.
- · A belief that doing the right thing is always the right thing to do. This may be the toughest one of all because there are so many agendas within an organization on so many different levels that it is hard to think through all of the consequences. Having an expectation that doing the right thing will be applauded may be really naïve. Pointing out criminal or unethical behavior is the right thing but the consequences can be embarrassment, brand damage, bad publicity, customers fleeing, stock prices falling, etc. If the right thing leads to friends being fired or laid off, it may not feel like it was the right thing to do.
- · A belief that hard work leading to promotion and higher income will lead to happiness. It certainly used to be a widespread belief that climbing the organizational ladder led to wealth and an easier life, afternoons off to play golf, etc. In today’s world many are finding that the higher they fly the greater the stress and pressure, the more time they are expected to put in and the more out of balance their work and personal lives are. Many young people, including professionals like lawyers, accountants and those working for high powered management consulting firms have already discovered this and have vowed not to push hard for partnerships and promotions. They value their lives outside of work and do not want to give them up.
So, what is the social compact these days? Is it every person for herself? Look out for #1? Or maybe it should involve every person understanding her own motivators and values and using them as the criteria for choosing a workplace, making sure to work where those values are honored. Those that love “dog eat dog” can thrive in certain environments and their ideas of what their organization should offer them will be met. In the larger world, where we as a society cannot agree on what priorities should guide us, it may in fact be impossible to expect any sort of general “social compact.” It sounds like we all have to be cutting our own deals.