Tales of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Corporations Reflect All Too Human Attitudes
What do people really want from a big business these days? I mean, in a human way, not just more great stuff, for less, instantly. The murky answer often seems to be everything plus a 20 percent tip. I think the murk boils down to one word—“attitude”.
People want a new attitude on the public scene, but the request comes in so wretchedly. The wish is buried in a clatter of conflicting demands: don’t pollute, charge less, hire more, fire less, don’t be big, advertise nicer, lobby less, tell more, shut down and don’t leave. Companies are baffled. They still want to do as the customer wants, so they struggle to decode society’s directions. Frustrations rise all around.
From my experience, I conclude that the chance for betterment lies far less in decoding the hail of demands than it does in tending to organizational attitude. What does this thought mean? For any organization, in whatever business or public interest they are, attitude shows up in many ways.
An early clue to attitude comes in using information. It can be used as a tool, or a weapon. It can be used to solve problems, vanquish others, or pump up egos. It can be sufficient, fall short, or be cut short. Information can be used for lasting good, or withheld for a momentary delay of news. Facts can be told with a level cast, or carry a tilt, even unwittingly. Facts can be put in simple words or stony Greek.
Attitude makes all these choices, even if the choice is to leave matters to chance or a slow, boggy system. Over time, the choices make a pattern like a wall poster—a picture of attitude. I believe what most people look for in the business scene is not some imaginary perfection. They want real signs of continuous effort toward, and improvement in, what affects the public. Information, the first test of attitude, provides many other signs of it.
For dirty industries, people want to see continuous effort produce cleaner systems, not just environmental compliance. People want to see continuous reductions in the natural resources used per unit of product made. The data reveal attitude. It is not so crazy.
Attitude is revealed again at award time, after a change is made for the better. Any civic clubber knows credit should be given where it is due. Many, if not most, social improvements (like cleaner smokestacks) come in response to the public’s wishes, superior counter-pressure, or new laws. Surely the change deserves credit, but the credit is not solely the company’s, as it often trumpets. Part of the credit is rightly owed to the public, and often regulators. Some credit is owed the news media.
By grabbing for all the credit, a company deals itself a double loss. First, people resent a company’s bragging about obeying a law (especially one it just fought like a mad badger).
Secondly, the company loses the credit it deserves for responding to the public—credit the company dearly wants. An attitude made from patches of ego, pride and fear works against self-interest and blocks the organization from sharing due credit for the progress. Naturally, the whole company is viewed like any person who would act this way, self-centered and boorish. It is not so crazy.
The tangle is all too human. Public interest groups, too, can display the same ego, pride and fear, and suffer the same harm. The traits inhibit any side from gaining more of its goals. I suggest that big organizations have but one hope of coping with the way of things. That hope is shaped, filled, and wrapped with a mix of human measures called attention to attitude.