This year, we learned we have fewer than 15 years to prevent catastrophic climate change. We saw suicide rates rise at a rapid rate and watched journalists experience an unprecedented degree of abuse. We also saw the war in Yemen push millions to the brink of starvation, the rise of Nazis in Europe alongside the mistreatment of Muslim migrants, and the worst year on record for gun violence in schools. In a year like this, it would be easy to fall prey to the tyranny of positivity. When the news is overwhelmingly depressing, we find ourselves saying things like, “Just be positive – things will be alright” – or worse, “It doesn’t do any good to get upset.”
Needless to say, I beg to differ. A positive outlook that turns a blind eye to pain and difficulty espouses two dangerous ideas: First, it implies that anger or sadness are wrong emotions that we should avoid. Second, it implies that we bear no responsibility for the state of things. Neither are true and both are costly – particularly when adopted on a broad scale.
So, what’s the alternative? If we choose to turn and look our pain square in the eye, where does it leave us? If we decide to take responsibility for our culpability, what does that mean? To be honest, I have no idea – but I ran into a few sources of wisdom this year that may point us in the right direction.
1. Challenge Assumptions
This podcast episode by Invisibilia called The Culture Inside poses the question, “Is there a part of ourselves that we don’t acknowledge, that we don’t even have access to and that might make us ashamed if we encountered it?” In a series of short stories, it gently invites listeners to challenge the assumptions we have about ourselves and others – and perhaps even accept that we are all encumbered by implicit bias. Wherever we are in the process of owning our own culpability, this will take you one step deeper.
2. Ask the Hard Questions
For those of us in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility, this rather uncomfortable interview invites us to ask the hard questions. Anand Giridharadas tells Krista Tippet about his experience with the Aspen Institute and the book that followed. “I had started to realize as I got deeper into that Aspen world that it was also a world where Pepsi and Monsanto sponsored things, and the Koch brothers sponsored things, and Goldman Sachs sponsored our reunions. You started to realize that it wasn’t necessarily clear that this enterprise we were a part of was truly about world betterment.” Are we really making the world a better place when we talk about the Triple Bottom Line and Shared Value – or are we just making ourselves feel better about getting rich? Questions like these help us avoid avoidance, take a fearless moral inventory, and make (more) conscious choices.
3. Turn Inward
If you don’t mind going a little Buddhist (and if you don’t mind poor-quality audio), Tara Brach’s invitation toward Radical Acceptance may represent one of the most pro-active steps an individual can take toward turning difficult emotions into powerful actions. If her style isn’t yours, just take a moment to practice her core advice. Here’s the gist: When we choose to mask anger and stress by pushing them below the surface, we are still governed by them in ways we don’t notice. (But others do!) Rather than being governed by what we try to hide, we have the option of retraining our brains to recognize where the feeling is originating and the responses that will lead to wise and conscious decision-making. She offers the acronym RAIN as guidance:
Recognize what is happening by naming the feeling
Allow the experience to be there – don’t try to change it or make it go away
Investigate with interest and care
Nurture with self-compassion.
4. Take Action – Two Corporate Examples
If you listened to the Anand Giridharadas podcast mentioned above and you still support corporate community involvement, consider these two simple examples of companies who decided in 2018 to face societal issues in a new way with the intention of affecting genuine, positive change:
The Global Give – At the beginning of the year, eBay decided to take stock of three key observations:
1. Donations that are given directly and strategically achieve greater impact than donations that are spread thin in small amounts.
2. Signature community programs should align with a company’s core business – three of which, in eBay’s case, are entrepreneurship, small business, and the circular economy.
3. Employees are interested in making a difference in ways that are personally meaningful – and they’re willing to work hard to make it happen.
So, they took a risk and stripped their employee grants program down to its core elements, rebuilding it piece by piece for greater impact. While the original grants program was well-known and popular; the new grants program is now also highly strategic. The original grants program allowed for broad employee choice, but the new grants program awards donations to 30 business-aligned non-profit organizations. Despite knowing this program would be more complicated, ask for greater commitment from employees, and require long-term tracking and management, eBay moved forward anyway into a highly successful launch of the 2018 Global Give! As we speak, winning projects are underway and planning for Global Give 2019 has already begun.
The point is not that one more company has a new corporate community initiative. The point is that it would have been easier to leave the program as it was. It would have been easier to ignore the things that weren’t working, “just be positive”, and hope for impact. Instead, eBay decided they have a responsibility to make a difference – and to be made different in the process.
Integration over Isolation – Early in the New Year, you’ll see the 2019 version of Realized Worth’s CSR Conferences Blog go live. Every year, the publication of that list triggers a series of requests for guidance on which conference is the best – and specifically, “Which conference will present the most innovative, rule-breaking ideas?” Well, this year, we can’t wait to direct you to hear the story of one company who is unafraid to challenge assumptions and ask the hard questions – so much so that they are completely undermining the typical structure of corporate volunteer programs.
This well-known travel and logistics company (I’m not allowed to name them yet!) has made the decision to integrate volunteering into all employee interest groups rather than isolating it as its own, separate practice. All leaders of employee interest groups will be invited to access training, support, and resources to effectively learn how to provide experiential, community-focused learning opportunities.
Why do we love this?
1. Human motivation is based on, “What’s in it for me?” What will I gain from giving my time, attention, and energy to this activity? Integrating volunteering experiences into existing interests simply adds value and eliminates the necessity for an internal battle.
2. Volunteering is valuable when it serves to transform the perspective of both the giver and receiver, but it can be difficult to know how to create space where both parties are invited to consider new ideas in a safe and non-threatening way. Employee interest groups – especially, diversity groups – have built-in issues for employees to rally around as they educate each other through experience.
3. Employee volunteer programs have the potential to drive inclusivity and belonging – why not integrate them into groups where employees already belong? This is the future of CSR and employee volunteering: integrated, not isolated.
These are two simple examples of companies choosing to take responsibility for their power in ways that require some degree of risk and uncertainty. If you ask me today, I could probably provide a handful of additional examples – such as this video produced by Emirates NBD. But the truth is, it’s not corporations who can be depended upon to make these brave decisions. Rather, it is the collective voice of a few select individuals who decide that they will access the resources and platforms of the brands they work for in order to make a greater difference together than they can make on their own.
It will never be enough to say, “Just be positive – things will be alright.” Things will only be alright if we as individuals choose to challenge assumptions, ask the hard questions, look inward, and take action. With this choice, we agree that difficult feelings like anger, sadness, and anxiety are not only necessary but important. They are indicators which direct us toward people and issues that require our attention – including ourselves.
At the start of a new year, may we allow each other the full range of human experience and welcome laughter and cheer alongside all the other feelings. And in so doing, may we enjoy what it means to fully here – present for what is and what will be – bearing witness to our lives and the lives of others.
“To greet sorrow today does not mean that sorrow will be there tomorrow. Happiness comes too, and grief, and tiredness, disappointment, surprise, and energy. Chaos and fulfillment will be named as well as delight and despair. This is the truth of being here, wherever here is today. It may not be permanent, but it is here. I will probably leave here, and I will probably return. To deny here is to harrow the heart. Hello to here.”
– Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World