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Purpose Washing, Hustle Culture, and Automation: Business at a Crossroads

The conversation in Davos showed that CEOs are struggling with conflicting agendas: fairness or growth, humanization or efficiency, government or business power.

Business leaders today must constantly wrestle with opposing forces: They must embrace data and at the same time listen to their gut feelings. They must cater to efficiency pressures and also create a culture of trust and creativity. They must ensure short-term profit while thinking about the long-term impact of their business, acting as “civic CEOs” stewarding “woke brands.” Some may call this ambidexterity, others schizophrenia. At any rate, it’s not surprising that being stuck in the middle of such dichotomy breeds uncomfortable tension and conflicting rhetoric. Double agendas lead to double speak.

Purpose Washing: Social inequality and the question of taxes

The first conflict is between business’ belief that it can help solve the world’s issues through corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, and philanthropy initiatives and those critics who view this as a phony and ultimately futile attempt to fix the damage after the fact. There’s been a notable recent backlash lately against “purpose washing,” led by razor-sharp voices such as Anand Giridharadas and his much discussed book Winners Take All in which he argues that “Today’s titans of tech and finance want to solve the world’s problems, as long as the solutions never, ever threaten their own wealth and power.” For him, Davos is “a family reunion for the people who broke the world.”

Hustle Culture: Become a smart machine or be replaced by one

Companies seek to address these concerns by touting the re-humanization of the corporation and promoting a more human workplace. “Human” has become the hammer for every nail, from the “human network” to the “human brand.” In this case, too, it can be difficult to discern truth from PR. Companies such as Microsoft are taking steps to align their policies with human needs (CEO Satya Nadella even endorsed the new European privacy law, GDPR, in Davos) and foster cultures of empathy and exploration, even if that means to occasionally defy the regime of pure efficiency thinking.

No tomorrow for humans doing routine work

Automation is looming, and as with the social responsibility of companies, there is a lot of double speak going on. Who is more cynical: the CEO who sees no choice but full automation or the CEO who pretends to build a purpose-driven, socially responsible company but is ready to sacrifice all of that in favor of short-term earnings when the going gets tough? “Digital ethics,” “human-centered A.I.,” and other monikers making the rounds often disguise the fact that most CEOs are eager to automate everything that can be automated.

Reinventing Capitalism: a business or government affair?

Shifting course appears to be a daunting task, though, for the majority of CEOs, who, according to a YPO survey presented at Davos, still insist that greater social impacts are achieved through business, not politics, with regulation and taxation being the biggest impediments. This is at odds with the notion of shifting a considerable portion of the responsibility and power for designing more equitable societies to government. Among the priorities for policy makers are the regulation of big tech, higher marginal tax rates, universal health care, stronger protections for workers threatened by automation, and exploring alternative ways for people to integrate into society beyond paid work and traditional careers (universal basic income offers one possible scenario here).

Co-founder and co-CEO of The Business Romantic Society; co-founder and co-curator of the House of Beautiful Business; author of “The Business Romantic”

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