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ruthless compassion
31 January 2014 @ 01:51 pm
Corporations are the enemy.

I work for a really great company. The people here are amazing, and we're engaged in a big, valuable project that I feel good about, and I truly believe that leadership cares about the corporate mission and vision, and also, unlike plenty of leadership teams, the employees and the employee experience. That doesn't matter, though, because these people are not the corporation. They may speak for the corporation; they may make decisions for the corporation; the corporation may be made up of them (and me). But the corporation is bigger than all of them, and it is profoundly anti-person. Not because anyone at the company is anti-person, but because every corporation is fundamentally anti-person.

The corporation's one and only job in our economy is to make money. Its structure and ethics are driven by this mission. And for the corporation, people are always the enemy to this goal, whether employees (serious money sinks from the corporation's perspective) or clients (how can we wring more money out of them?) or competitors (obvious). The bigger a corporation is, the less any one person's influence holds sway, and as the corporation grows, its addiction to money and making more and more money grows as well.

In the fable of the farmer and the snake, where the farmer rescues a snake who then bites him, the snake says, "You knew I was a snake when you rescued me." In dealing with corporations, we must always recognize that the corporation is the snake. The good intentions of the people who make up the corporation aren't relevant, because the very structure of the corporation in today's world is, in human and ecological terms, immoral and opposed to the human good. There is no such thing as a good corporation because of how they are constructed and defined economically and legally.

Good old Google started out saying "don't be evil", and now, anyone can see that Google is evil all over the place: sharing individuals' private data with advertisers and government, conspiring with other corporations to keep employee pay unnaturally low. Don't blame Google: its job is to make money, and this is how it's doing so.

Similarly, the company I work for is currently not (to my knowledge) engaging in overtly evil behaviors, but that's not a steady state, because it's a corporation, and when push comes to shove, it won't always come down on the side of the people.

Even if we love working here right now and truly believe it's a good deal (at the moment), the corporation is never on our side. It's easy to confound the corporation and the people who represent it, and that's especially true at higher levels. Senior leadership identifies with the corporation, and wants loyalty to the corporation from employees. The problem is that loyalty is a human bargain. The corporation has no inherent loyalty to its employees or customers, and we have none to it, though the people representing the corporation have lost sight of this.

This is why it's so important not to let the corporation eat you. The corporation pays you for your time and effort, but it doesn't own you, even though it would like you to forget that distinction and always be available to check your email and put out a fire. Don't confuse the corporation for the people who represent it. Feel loyalty and reciprocity towards people, but never the corporation. The best we can do is rein it in and have strong, ethical leaders keep it on track, who recognize that we are all fighting together against the nature of the thing. If you hold it right, it can't bite you, but at heart, it will always be a snake.