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Serving Our Work and Neighbours: Which Comes First?

On this Labour Day, Comment muses alongside Dorothy Sayers: does good work mean relegating customers and other stakeholders to a subordinate position?

Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter begins a recent article with this declaration: "The capitalist system is under siege." Porter correctly perceives that business has, indeed, seen better days. Destructive and immoral practices over the past decade (such as fraud and irresponsible lending) have eroded public trust, and employee morale is at an all-time low.

Sensing a pivotal moment in history, leading management thinkers, educational institutions, and practitioners are reimagining the role of the corporation and the purpose of business. Many who represent diverse walks of life and constituencies argue that business as a whole, and our work within it, should serve more than the interests of shareholders alone. In a provocative Harvard Business Review article, Gary Hamel calls for a qualitatively different "Management 2.0," of which the first hallmark should be to "ensure that the work of management serves a higher purpose." Likewise, philosopher/ theologian Dallas Willard, in an article for The Trinity Forum entitled "The Business of Business," argues that commercial enterprise ought to be approached as a profession and, as opposed to profit, has a primary duty of providing for "the common good." Given all that has recently gone awry, these perspectives offer timely prompts and new ideas about how business might better serve society.

Yet, in one of the most widely read, classic essays on vocation entitled "Why Work?", author Dorothy Sayers suggests that "the worker's first duty is to serve the work," rather than the community, customer, or any other stakeholders, for that matter. According to Sayers, "There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work." She likens the irony to a golf swing. You "cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it—any more than you can make a good drive from the tee if you take your eye off the ball".

Is Sayers really suggesting that we can do good work—and build great organizations, for that matter—by relegating customers and other stakeholders to a subordinate position? Or is she hinting at something else, a set of commitments to our work and acts of creation that serves as a better and truer guide to keep us on course?

Sayers's admonition for the marketplace to rethink its focus on the community at large seems to gainsay much of the emphasis of present-day thinking on vocation and management. Modern-day expressions of Stakeholder Theory, first articulated by the likes of R. Edward Freeman over 25 years ago, invite a broader, more holistic perspective on the "nexus of relationships" that business should consider while carrying out its operations. Rather than just enabling the well-being of investors (still a predominant view in management education and practice), firms should consider the interests of other groups, such as customers, employees, suppliers, trade associations, labour unions, the environment, and communities at large. Corporate Social Responsibility, Conscious Capitalism, Social Entrepreneurship, Shared Value, and even new forms of corporate structure and governance are just a few expressions of the evolution of Stakeholder Theory. Business doesn't operate in a vacuum, the theory goes, and therefore, it needs to pay attention to its full array of partners and prospective partners. Makes sense—or does it?

As in Sayers's day, "serving the community" is catchy and marketable. Many leaders of businesses have adjusted their strategies, recognizing that consumers feel better about their purchasing decisions if they see an explicit social benefit that results from their company interactions. This change is admirable and a welcome development in business' contribution to human flourishing. But, as Sayers wonders, does such a focus harbor a hidden danger, presenting anew the "old catch" about the primacy of the two Great Commandments—loving God and neighbour? According to Sayers, much "trouble and disillusionment" result from "putting the second commandment before the first." Are there lessons to be drawn for our modern-day work commitments from the prioritization of our primordial commands to love God and love others? Can we truly serve our countless neighbours and multiple stakeholders with life-giving products and services, if we don't first value the unique work and creative opportunities that have been set before us?

To grapple with these questions, it is important to understand what Sayers is saying in her original socio-historical context (for a more thorough overview of Sayers and her essay "Why Work?", see the excellent introduction by David Miller, director of the Princeton University Faith and Work Initiative, for The Trinity Forum). Sayers, born in England in 1893, was a groundbreaker in many respects, including holding the honour of being one of the first women to graduate from Oxford. After she established herself professionally as an acclaimed novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist, Sayers turned her attention to matters pertaining to Christian faith and work. Originally delivered as a lecture in 1942 during World War II, "Why Work?" begins by addressing dangerous consumption patterns (it is not hard to imagine the many close parallels today) that characterized the pre-war economy. In Sayers's words, "A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand." It was this shifting economic foundation that Sayers sought to avoid in post-war England.

But in sharp contrast to the emphasis on consumption that she observed in society at large, Sayers found the Church largely inactive in affirming the calling of men and women in "secular," non-ecclesiastical settings. The absence appalled her:

In nothing has the Church so lost her hold on reality as in her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends . . .

In the second half of the essay, Sayers turns her attention to the nobility of good and sacred work in all spheres of life. Labour, as God intends, affirms a part of our God-given nature and identity. Work, according to Sayers, "is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do." It finds its ultimate value and worth not in the personal piety of the worker (though that is important) but in its own integrity, being "true to itself."

At this juncture of her thesis, Sayers invites workers, as their first duty and obligation, to "serve" their work. She gives three reasons for why doing so is crucial:

  1. "You cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it." (A modern-day political analogy might be lawmakers so enslaved to popular polls or party caucus that they forget their guiding values and deeply held beliefs. Or, in a business context, a company so mesmerized by holding focus groups that it fails to consider its own experience and innate sense of what constitutes a good and worthy product.)
  2. When you think of serving community over and above serving your work, you impose a demand on that community, consciously or unconsciously, "that other people owe you something for your pains." You start "to bargain for reward, to angle for applause, and to harbor a grievance if you are not appreciated."
  3. "If you set out to serve the community, you will probably end up merely fulfilling a public demand—and may not even do that." (Think: popular forms of entertainment that lack artistic merit.)

Given the competitiveness of the global marketplace and the need to pay attention to outside stakeholders, especially customers, how do we best "serve our work" in contemporary business life? And, is it possible to both "serve our work" and serve the community? In Sayers' view, "the only true way of serving the community is to be truly in sympathy with the community—to be one's self part of the community—and then to serve the work, without giving the community another thought." Under this condition, work is "true to itself" and able to deliver its greatest value and benefit. Countless examples exist of businesses that demonstrate such excellence, and certainly, companies that top the "most admired" lists often exhibit characteristics of what it means to serve one's work with excellence.

There is no magic formula, though, and even the best companies never experience one hundred percent success in delivering value to others. Organizations and their leaders must wrestle with these demands consciously and continuously. One expression of what "serving the work" might be is an unflagging dedication to exceptional quality and service. This kind of devotion truly models a "sympathy" and self-identification with the customer that transcends the quotidian public relations babble of good company/customer/community relations. It illustrates something so unique and other-oriented that it might best be described as the antithesis of caveat emptor or "buyer beware."

Debates about the virtues and vices of the company aside, Apple Computer provides a paragon for contra caveat emptor. Its loyalty is certainly telling; more people now visit Apple's 326 stores in a three-month period than the 60 million who visited Walt Disney's four largest theme parks last year. But behind such success is a truly unique relationship with people, products, and technology. In a recent article in The Atlantic called "The Secret to Apple's Marketing Genius (Hint: It's Not Marketing)," Nigel Hollis describes how most brand experts miss the secret of the company's success. Rather than promoting product features, "Apple ads are about how a product can change your life." Watch an ad for the iPad, Hollis invites. Rather than focusing on all the cool technical attributes, Apple portrays real people—like you and me—discovering new and exciting ways to access and use news and entertainment. Entire categories of technology are redefined, especially how and where we go online, and how it feels and what we do once we get there.

Apple further reflects "sympathy" with its customer community through its own employment and training philosophies. Its recruitment language, in "sympathy" with its vision and mission, states, "Less of a job, more of a calling: Working at Apple is a whole different thing. Because whatever you do here, you play a part in creating some of the best-loved technology on the planet. And in helping people discover all the amazing things they can do with it." The difference between Apple and so many other companies is that the rhetoric is borne out.

Another great example can be found in a family-owned business that has attained status as a cultural institution and has cultivated a fanatical following. Founded by Harry and Esther Snyder in Baldwin Park, California, in 1948, and now operating approximately 260 outlets, In-N-Out Burger illustrates what it means to "serve the work." The company has created what many consider to be the best fast food experience in the United States by being, in many ways, the antithesis of fast food. In-N-Out received a recent top finish in Consumer Reports first-ever rankings for fast food restaurants. It has achieved this through painstaking attention to food quality and strength of menu. Strong local sourcing is practiced, so the ingredients (including the beef) are never frozen. The owners have been careful not to overextend the product line—burgers, fries, and shakes are the only prepared items offered. Also, the business remains privately held, and thus there is no franchising, despite much clamoring for them to do so. Employees are paid very well, maintaining low turnover and the company's legendary service quality.

A final example is Saddleback Leather Company, a much smaller business that produces high quality leather goods. Its company goal is "to love people around the world by making excessively high quality, tough and functional leather designs." The company promotes truly exceptional craftsmanship and spends months (even years) prototyping products before going to market, and its products are under warranty for 100 years. With a hint of fun, its warranty promises that "if you or one of your descendants should have a problem, send it back to me or one of my descendants and we'll repair or replace it for free or we'll give you a credit on the website (be sure to mention the warranty in your will)." The company is so certain of its superior product line that links to all of its competitors are listed on its website.

Given these examples, Sayers and modern-day practitioners and scholars do not seem to be that far apart. Sayers's writing seems to suggest that she would favor new management trends that support broader interests of stakeholders but never at the expense of conceding the primary creational mandate to do good work. If you fail to "serve your work," she might argue today, your work will fail to fully serve those who you have sought to serve. Paying attention to stakeholders is important and can improve the integrity of our work, but only if we so closely identify and are "in sympathy" with stakeholders that we don't (1) focus on the stakeholders to the extent that we neglect the intrinsic beauty and importance of the task before us; (2) lay a claim on the community in such a way that we demand something in exchange; (3) and/or limit our unique contribution or blessing to the world by allowing our product or service to become pedestrian—only meeting a public demand.

In our tumultuous economic climate, we need businesses of all sizes and across industries to deliver great products and services that enable people and communities to flourish. Apple, In-N-Out Burger, and Saddleback Leather are examples of companies that have paid close attention to their external audiences, but not to the extent that they lose focus on the inherent value (and value proposition) of their unique work contributions in the world. Complex and competing stakeholder interests will require thoughtful attention in the business landscape of the future. But let us not forget that there is a more foundational commitment that we must honour, and that is to "serve our work," as Dorothy Sayers advocated 69 years ago. When we keep this focus, we will deliver greater value, and thereby better serve our neighbours.

Help us spread the word:
John Terrill John Terrill
John Terrill is the Director for the Center for Integrity in Business (CIB) at Seattle Pacific University. ... read more »
Kenman Wong Kenman Wong
Dr. Kenman Wong is a Professor of Business Ethics at Seattle Pacific University. ... read more »
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