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“We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Nearly twelve years ago I was honored to bring the large group Appreciative Inquiry Summit method to a UN World Summit with Nobel Laureate Kofi Annan and hundreds of CEOs from corporations such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Daiwa Asset Management Ltd, Siemens AG, IBM, Tata Industries, Novo Nordisk, China Mobile, Royal Dutch Shell, Dow, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Novartis, and others such as the micro-enterprise pioneer Grameen Bank. Unexpectedly at this business and society Summit in the UN’s General Assembly Hall, we learned that we all shared a common conviction: that business has the opportunity to be one of the most positive forces on the planet, and that the epic transition to a world economy of ‘full-spectrum flourishing’ is no longer a utopian urge or mini-trend but an observable and astonishing trajectory.
That day over 2,000 stories of business and society breakthroughs poured in: innovations in business as a force for eradicating extreme poverty; business as a force for net-positive eco-regeneration and human thriving; and business as a catalytic agent for peace, reunion, and healing in some of the most extreme conflict zones in the world. With stories of empowering solutions, magnified strengths, and system-wide breakthrough realities in the room, there was a groundswell of what can only be described as an emotion of urgent optimism. “Let’s imagine the economy you most want to see.” The five hundred executives were asked: “what’s happening a generation from now in your image of the future that you most want to help create?” We repeated this future exploration three more times at the Global Forum for Business as an Agent of World Benefit, and here is the guiding image of the future that resonates:
A bright green restorative economy purifies the air we breathe; it has eliminated the very concept of waste and toxic by-products; extreme poverty has been eradicated from the planet; the economy is powered by 100% renewable, abundant energy and is saving the decarbonized world trillions in lower costs; it is a world of freer and truer markets with signals that generate positive incentives aligned with the long-term greater good (thus, it has virtually eliminated ‘perverse incentives’); the economy’s industry-leading stars are celebrated as creators of sustainable value where the term ‘sustainability-as-less-bad’ has been replaced with the ‘sustainability-as-flourishing’ net positive; what we see when we look around are resilient, bright green, and walkable cities, re-generative agricultural practices, and astonishing exponential technologies for advancing health and connections for super-cooperation; and all of this is built on an economy of institutions that are widely trusted as positive institutions — workplaces that elevate, magnify, and refract our highest human strengths (wisdom, courage, humanity, compassion, inspiration, collaborative creativity, freedom, hope, joy, learning, integrity, love, and meaning) into the world. We’ve built the bridge from an unsustainable industrial age to a future that embraces the idea of full-spectrum flourishing. We have re-designed the entire material basis of our civilization—successfully.
The purpose of this article is to join with what I’m now sensing as the most important business for good movement in the world today. Its message, paradoxically, is to declare that it’s time to abandon the language, the cultural meme, and the vision of a ‘sustainable’ economy. Just at the historic inflection moment when it seems like the whole world united in common cause in Paris around the call for sustainability, recent thinkers and researchers of pioneering stature are casting doubts. There is the very real possibility, says the evidence base, that the incrementalism involved in sustainability-as-less-harm is going to wear itself down to a trickle of energy, deplete our intrinsic motivation, and ultimately, result in too little too late. Our frames are like eyes and if we want a quantum leap in society we need the gift of new eyes.
In the rest of this article I will reflect on the gift of new eyes offered by recent volumes such as The Flourishing Enterprise: The New Spirit of Business1 and a special issue of the Journal of Corporate Citizenship where my colleagues and I explore the positive psychology of sustainability and the idea of ‘full-spectrum flourishing’2 together with John Erhenfeld’s bold redefinition of sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.”3 In many ways this clarion call to ‘sustainability-as-flourishing’ might prove to be more important to the flaring forth of our social potential than the Brundtland Commission’s introduction of the term sustainable development in 1987.
For example, after every executive and stakeholder at The Clarke Group, Inc. recently read the Stanford University book The Flourishing Enterprise by Chris Laszlo and the research fellows at the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit they, the whole Clarke company, along with hundreds of stakeholders in the room, experienced an epiphany. It was a collective experience that allowed them to elevate their minds, hearts, and imaginations way beyond sustainability as less harm, less waste, less … less, less, less. When the CEO Lyell Clarke talked about the ‘heart of Clarke’ bringing regeneration, healing, and a net-positive fingerprint to every utterance, relationship, and community, and action of the company, he spoke about ‘project greater purpose’ with tears in his eyes—because of the sheer privilege to serve. The driving force of their success, in our view, was a shift in consciousness, what Ervin Laszlo has called the experience of ‘the whispering pond’ and what Chris Laszlo and his team of research fellows have called ‘the consciousness of connection.’
The grammar of interconnection is the business discipline of our age. In this article I want to underscore and build upon three achievements from this call for sustainability-as-flourishing (SAF), and then amplify a hidden opportunity—a huge one. It relates to a question that I’ve been studying and I believe we, as a field, are zeroing in on with an honest answer that every organization, manager, and industry can benefit from. That overarching question is this: how can we most reliably, naturally, and most rapidly bring the human side of enterprise to its vital highest and best version of itself—to a tangible and irrepressible state of enterprise-wide flourishing inside and outside—and do so in pragmatic ways that break the ‘sound barriers’ to sustainable value creation at a more macro level?
The answer revolves around a profound dynamic called macro obliquity—how, by taking attention away from something and putting attention at a more macro or holistic level, we can actually accomplish even more than if we went directly after it. For example, companies who pursue profit in a straight line, over everything else, very likely will not do as well as those that create a deep emotional and resonating connection with a powerful purpose beyond profit. Or another example is even better. When I was invited at the height of the violence to work in South Africa at a center that convened all the diverse groups coming together to change the country, not one single meeting over the months and years was on the topic or priority agenda of ending apartheid. Not one, even though apartheid was in full operation! I was shocked, even confused. Then someone illuminated: “You see, David, you don’t get it; apartheid is already done—it’s dead and done in the minds of millions—dealing with reducing the negative aspects of apartheid is not our work; it does not and cannot inspire. Every single meeting and minute, as you will see, will be totally focused on new designs for the post-apartheid multi-racial democracy— we are building a legacy.”
And that’s what subsequently happened. We all saw it: it was not long then, right in front of the world’s eyes, that Mandela and de Klerk spontaneously raised and held high their hands together in a soccer stadium and the whole world echoed round. Was apartheid ended? It certainly was; but making it less bad did not change the system. The whole thing was eclipsed. And the massive, systemic process of transformation was faster, more profound, and more loving via the Truth and Reconciliation Commission than anyone in the world predicted. Yes, economic sanctions were part of it and so was the presence of towering leadership, but there was a genius in the framing. Not one meeting was about ending apartheid, yet that was the result. Obliquity works that way—we don’t fall asleep, for example, by putting all of our energy into falling asleep. A good night’s rest is something that ensues not something one pursues. It ensues from so many other things—perhaps a contented heart or a good day’s work— in fact, the more we pursue it directly the more restless, weary, and tossing-and-turning we are likely to experience. Many things are that way.
Could it be the same thing with unsustainability? Is doing less harm really the topic?
Let me try to underscore the essence of courageous books such as The Flourishing Enterprise while also drawing on ideas and recent discussions by authors in the Harvard Business Review. Several of them including C.K. Prahalad and Ram Nidumolu share similar concerns: where do we look to drive large-scale change for sustainable business?4
We can talk about three levels of change—with level three being the deepest:
Level 1: These involve sustainability efforts in enterprise systems, strategies, and processes, including stakeholder partnerships, and often result in cost savings and reductions in the harm of new products, waste, toxicities, energy systems, and overall footprint. It’s here that tools such as lean and green, life-cycle analysis, and others are introduced through training, manuals, videos, and expert analysis.
Level 2: Changes in organizational culture and identity — these are deeper changes in beliefs, norms, ways of operating, and assumptions about business in society—and these assumptions often become sacred in terms of company values where words and deeds become aligned and the sustainability culture of doing less harm becomes embedded, not simply a bolt-on, and at its best becomes so enculturated that it permeates everything—strategy, operations, everyday language and behavior.
Level 3: Changes in business leadership’s inner sense of self and commitment to move from systems of less harm to motivations to advance the sources of positive good—to leave a positive fingerprint or signature on the world—arising from a sense of genuine consciousness of connection, inner inspiration of the kind of person we are or want to become, and positive beliefs in the power of conscious intention.
As Nidumolu has articulated, the interesting thing is that “the change drivers at each level are different”5 and, as Laszlo and Ehrenfeld and others have proposed, the third level—call it the spiritual level of deeper meaning and purpose in an interconnected web of life—is ontologically the most important. It is, as the SAF champions so powerfully detail it, the inner flourishing of the human being that makes the difference—being alive with purpose, emotional resonance, and coherence with the greater good, and full belief in our vast potentials. Consider the inner spirit, for example, of any great change agent, from Nelson Mandela to Helen Keller, as well as extraordinary designers and entrepreneurs from Janine Benyus to the late Ray Anderson. There are solid reasons why the deeper levels have a bigger impact on the shallower levels. While the change drivers at the first level are return on investment and the business case, and the change drivers at the second level are catalyzed significantly via external interactions with changing societal expectations, the third level emerges through reflective practices, the cultivation of consciousness and mindfulness, and the intrinsic motivation that comes from it. And if the deeper levels, from the inside outward, have a bigger impact on the shallower levels, then what might we predict if the third level is weak or actually absent?
What we would predict is what is happening in far too many organizations. Once the early business gains of sustainability are realized many organizations soon hit a brick wall. The nearer companies come to net zero—let’s say they are halfway there cutting fuel costs in half, reducing waste, using less water or precious metals, etc. — the more exhausted the sustainability efforts become. Think of the Sisyphus syndrome.
Far too many of the early movers in the sustainable business domain have subsequently abandoned or demoted sustainability from its strategic position to an operational concern. From BP’s dislodgment from its original sustainability vision (Sir John Browne recently wrote ‘corporate social responsibility is dead’) to Interface’s Mt. Sustainability’s uphill battle, and from WalMart’s ‘all hands on deck’ early big splash to Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’ well publicized growth challenges, it appears that an exhaustion sets in.
“Climbing Mt. Sustainability gets increasingly harder the closer you get to the peak,” said Ray Anderson “just as climbers of Mt. McKinley show us as they are gasping mightily for air the higher they go.”
Quite suddenly, in this decade, the sustainability advantage has been ‘discovered’ by thousands of companies. The business case— for example as demonstrated by the Tata’s, Google’s, Herman Miller’s, and Natura’s—as well as studies of ‘firms of endearment’ or firms that are winning the hearts and minds of people, customers, and communities they serve—is becoming striking. Firms of Endearment companies such as Whole Foods, Starbucks, and others have shown stock performance rise over a fifteen year period at a 14:1 rate of even those remarkable and successful companies highlighted in the Jim Collins research on Good to Great.6,7
Meanwhile, empirical meta-analysis of the human side of enterprise—of employee well-being, happiness, and engagement—has demonstrated that productivity, profits, employee retention, and customer obsession all increase as the level of workplace well-being, particularly employee personal growth, increases.8 What’s not happened, however, is a unified bringing together of the two domains — the sustainability domain and human flourishing in the workplace—and that’s perhaps the most compelling call of our time.
Sustainability initiatives will likely run out of steam unless we accompany all of the sustainable value tools—life cycle analysis; focus on energy efficiency; net zero goal setting; LEED building design; waste-to-wealth efforts; social entrepreneurship; blue ocean strategy; sustainable product design and more—with a global mind shift in our consciousness of connectedness.
I was in a meeting of advanced CEOs in Brazil and instantly this point made concrete sense. The debate was over the language of social responsibility. One CEO said that the language of corporate responsibility—just the language itself of one entity taking responsibility for the whole—felt like an ethical demand or another external ‘have to.’ The CEO was Rodrigo Loures, one of the most successful and respected business leaders in the country, and he said: “it’s not about responsibility for the whole; it’s about intimacy with the whole.” Read Rodrigo’s words once again; they are that important.
What a powerful quiet recognition. It changes everything. The shift from responsibility to intimacy does not change the scene as much as it changes perception: we don’t wish for our beloved son or daughter or other cherished, close relations to simply survive; we want them to totally thrive. We want them to flourish and flower to their fullest potentials and when they do we thrill to their success—because we care—it’s a response that is intrinsic to the experiencing of wholeness, oneness, and reunion.
Can we expect the same natural conviction or instinctive response from our sustainability initiatives? Imagine using sustainability language in one’s marriage vows. “We aspire to a sustainable marriage.” This is not at all inspired. So where can we look for the intrinsic energy and the natural, unstoppable intrinsic power to drive large-scale change for sustainable business, whole industries, and sustainable economies? Are there ways to access whole new magnitudes of change capacity?
The answer is yes, but we need new language, reframing, and a new and deeper starting place. Are the leading thinkers in the SAF movement really saying “good bye, good riddance, sustainability?” This is not a trivial change. Not that long ago the word sustainability was unknown. Today the field is flooded with headlines of sustainable brands that are reducing waste, creating carbon offsets, designing more energy-efficient facilities, aiming toward zero landfill, associating their marketing with green advertising, turning bottom of the pyramid populations into new markets, and now for some of the most courageous, becoming transparent about the true market costs of externalities. Sustainability noise is everywhere.
The word sustainability is troublesome for two reasons. The first is that words matter. As Wittgenstein once said, “the limits of language are the limits of our worlds”—and we, in other writings, have traced how words enable worlds (Cooperrider, Barrett and Srivastva, 1989). Think of how fast Malcolm Gladwell’s language of the ‘tipping point’ has spread, and how attractive the concepts became to inspired social media pioneers and CEOs such as Jeff Bezos. What if Gladwell had called it ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’ like systems scientists do? Or think about the field of psychology, obsessed for over a century with ‘mental illness’ and how stagnant and stale it became until about 2000 when Marty Seligman called for the study of thriving, a search for the elements of the ‘good life’ and the positive psychology of ‘human strengths.’ An amazing sea change happened almost overnight as we’ve turned attention to ‘learned optimism’ and ‘appreciative intelligence’ and nutritional excellence or ‘superimmunity’ — not just health as the absence of disease. In the field of organization development, we used to be obsessed with the topic of ‘low morale’ in companies (remember the low morale surveys?)—then a bit later the bar was raised to the study of normal ‘job satisfaction’— but why weren’t we studying the positively deviant dynamics of ‘thriving’ and ‘excellence’ and ‘virtuous organizations’ and the ‘most exceptional high engagement systems?’
Well, today we are, and lessons from appreciative inquiry studies into ‘What gives life?’ to human systems when they are most alive have shown something curious: human systems grow in the direction of what we most persistently and deeply ask questions about, the topics we study, precisely because those topic choices put a frame around what we discover, feed what we soon talk about, and become the resources for what we design. Earlier I related my huge surprise in South Africa whereupon every meeting (and this was way before the end of apartheid) was framed not in terms of ending apartheid or reducing its harms—instead, every single gathering was united in a larger aim, the design of the postapartheid system. What if we, in turn, assume that the idea of less unstainability is already achieved—it too is dead and gone as a respected or valued practice? Then we need to ask what’s next: could we achieve the reversal of harms of unsustainability faster, in obliquity terms, by focusing on something else altogether?
This is exactly what’s being achieved with the focus on flourishing. The word sustainability no longer inspires—and perhaps never did—as long as it’s framed largely as ‘surviving’ instead of ‘thriving,’ as ‘doing less bad’ instead of achieving a world of flourishing. Think about a gym shoe company that asks its designers to design a gym shoe that does less harm—for example, it biodegrades in a few decades as opposed to 100 years. Is that inspiring? Not really. Now imagine a gym shoe company that says sustainability is not the aim but instead the opportunity is all about positive regeneration of ecosystems. So they ask their designers: “Can you design us a gym shoe that’s made from biodegradable materials; appeals to young people and generates viral social media buzz so there are no advertising costs; is produced in net positive solar energy facilities; and by the way, when the shoes are done you will simply plant them in your backyard and they turn into a tree or flower?” Indeed, this is not hypothetical at all. It’s happening and the fashionable Netherlands-based company is called O.A.T. This is not sustainability as surviving. It’s a call to intentionally design whole economies that bloom and flourish where it’s not just a net zero circular economy but also a net positive upward spiral economy.
The way I read it is no. What the leading thinkers are speaking about, however, is a crucial, much needed reconceptualization. Imagine if every time we heard the word sustainability we saw in banner lights ‘sustainability as flourishing’ versus ‘sustainability as surviving.’ In business vocabulary that’s what the thought leaders call sustainable value creation—value that leads to or enhances the potentials for flourishing and prosperity across the full spectrum of stakeholder relationships, and value that simultaneously leads to or elevates the potential for flourishing and prosperity for the business. The flourishing enterprise, deep down, is something every industry leader wants. Flourishing enterprise is about people inspired every day and bringing their whole selves into the enterprise; it’s about innovation arising from everywhere; and it’s about realizing remarkable relationship value with stakeholders, including customers, communities and societies, and ultimately, with a thriving biosphere. Full-spectrum flourishing is a sustainability+ movement, one that invites fresh explorations, opens exciting new vistas, and unites fertile dialogues across diverse disciplines from biomimicry to business strategy, and from advanced AI technology and neuroscience to spirituality.
This is a big achievement.
What I admire most about the SAF advance is its courage to take up the ‘spiritual adventure’ behind sustainability-as-flourishing, the search for meaning, purpose, and value that becomes an end in itself. One of the truths of our time is this hunger deep in people all across the economy for realizing that their lives count, and count affirmatively as it relates to the greatest challenges we all share. Is it an accident that young people are flocking to a company such as Google that provides dedicated programs for personal development, wellness and nutritional excellence, hiking trails and solar-inspired buildings, meditation courses, collaborative teaming, as well as daring, world-changing projects such as the one to bring the Internet, information, and connectivity to bear on eradicating extreme poverty within a generation?
When you visit the GooglePlex, as I just did last year, you see extraordinary investment in the inner dimensions of human consciousness. Do you know what’s perhaps the most popular course by demand at Google? It’s the one offered by Chade-Meng Tan, employee number 107, and it’s based on his book Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace).10 Talk about success by design! While most companies espouse that people are the most important element, here one could sense that genuine commitment being acted upon in every nook and cranny of the campus. In one meeting, I watched a team that was on fire exploring the implications of a world where sensors via the internet of things will be able to cut world energy costs in half, where ocean temperature fluctuations can be monitored just as a mother closely attunes to her newborn’s fever, and where global vital signs of species, toxicities, and subtle climate changes can be sensitively examined 24/7 everywhere. One person shared what it’s like to work on a world-changing legacy project: “We are waking up to our earth’s vital signs.”
All of this is consistent with the hypothesis explored in The Flourishing Enterprise — that organizations building upon the human spirit for flourishing in terms of inner development will drive more successful organizations as sustainability+ flourishing enterprises, which ultimately will drive sustainable value creation for the business and for a better, more flourishing world (see figure 1). There is, as some have proposed, a critical trajectory here. And it begs a whole series of important questions: what will happen to sustainability efforts in the absence of an inner flourishing and a consciousness of connection? What do we mean by flourishing versus languishing in human or more personal terms? Can we really develop human beings for character development (for example, concern for humanity, empathy, wisdom, social intelligence and altruism, creativity, ethical affirmation of life, mindfulness, generativity, and concern for future generations, etc.)? And then we might ask: can the trajectory work bi-directionally instead of only uni-directionally? What if we reversed this sensible arrangement? Might we achieve the prize of a flourishing workplace—inspired, innovative, engaged, caring, aware, and generative—by starting first with the third circle on the right and then moving left? Could it be that the active creation of more flourishing societies and ecosystems inspires more flourishing organizations and stakeholder collaborations, which in turn creates fertile conditions for people to realize an inner sense of flourishing—again traversing the proposition in reverse?
We know from systems theory when any two events are related interdependently designating one as cause and the other as effect is an arbitrary designation. Both Peter Senge11 and also Karl Weick12 have shown that in causal loops no variable is any more or less important than any other variable. In a loop you can, at least theoretically, start the sequence anywhere you want by changing any event or variable.
As I move toward conclusion, I would like to add at least one additional dimension for leaders to consider in terms of an action agenda or positive pathway. For me, the implications of looking at the compelling proposition in reverse order is not only interesting, but also powerfully actionable as a leverage point for one remarkable source of business and human value that will never run out. It has to do with self-amplifying loops and virtuous circles. “Managers get in trouble,” argues Karl Weick, “because they forget to think in circles.”12
One of the high point moments in recent memory was a series of almost a dozen lectures I did in duet fashion with Marty Seligman across Australia. Hosted by the professional services firm PWC, we spoke to hundreds of executives in the financial industry, the healthcare industry, manufacturing, education, and information technology fields. Marty is well-known around the world as the father of the positive psychology movement, which is all about the scientific study of the good life—what is it, where is it happening, and what nurtures it—including the character strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves and others, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. Positive psychology, at the early stages, set forward three central pillars of concern: the study of positive emotions, the identification of positive individual traits or strengths, and the discovery and design of positive institutions.13 Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, flourishing in the present, and hope and optimism for the future.14 Understanding positive individual traits consists of the cataloguing and study of our highest human strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love, courage, ethical compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, justice, spirituality, and wisdom.15 Understanding positive institutions, as my colleagues and I have defined it, entails the study of how organizations and communities themselves can become vehicles for the elevation, magnification, and refraction of our highest human strengths beyond the organization and out into the world (Cooperrider and Godwin, 2011).16
In our talks, Seligman shared a preliminary outline of what would become his next major book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Well-Being,17 and I shared the theory of how we become what we study—that is, how our appreciative inquiries into the true, the better, and the possible actually create a momentum and new language of life for scientific co-construction of social reality.
We explored the dimensions of flourishing and Marty shared the well-researched dimensions of the good life—five pillars of the flourishing life—through the acronym PERMA. In many respects, the PERMA model represents a great summation of the extraordinary findings of positive psychology from the last decade. P stands for the study of positive emotion and explores questions such as “what good are positive emotions such as hope, inspiration, and joy?” E signifies ‘the engaged life’ or a life where our unique human strengths are engaged and how this pillar of well-being and growth is actively applied to the workplace. R underscores how much flourishing depends on high quality ‘life-giving’ relationships and the centrality of the Other in a theory of flourishing. M is all about the role of meaning—and how, without a life of meaning and purpose, there can be no deep sense of flourishing. And finally A, or accomplishment, is about the part of well-being that is not fleeting but enduring.
Following PERMA’s introduction, it was my opportunity to explore not just the individual psychology but also the opportunity for institutions. My call was to share observations on the most flourishing workplaces I had ever seen over some 30 years in the field of management. What surprised even me was this: every single one of the most extraordinary examples I spotlighted were from organizations leading the way in the sustainable value domain. In the video clips—scenes from our large group Appreciative Inquiry Summits with organizations such as Fairmount Minerals, who soon came to be an industry-leading star financially and was also awarded the #1 corporate citizen in the United States; or scenes from our work with Kofi Annan and 500 CEOs designing the strategies for the UN Global Compact; or scenes from our whole system-in-the-room appreciative inquiry summits with cities such as Cleveland’s ‘a green city on a blue lake’ work; or our strategic planning summits with whole states such as the work with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s convening with National Grid of more than 300 energy organizations to design the pathway to renewable energy transformation—what we tracked was a remarkable rise on each of the dimensions of PERMA’s flourishing. So what exactly was happening here? As people worked together on new designs for ‘out there’—for example, the regeneration of a waterway back to its purest potentials and better—there was, in palpable terms, a PERMA response, and the thought crossed my mind: “what do we know about the enhancement of human capacities through the power of restoring and revitalizing nature? Can companies, by engaging people in radically reducing energy watts, also in a reverse fashion actually produce more human energy?”
After a couple of talks, I realized it was not a minor discovery or finding. For over 30 years I have been active in the applied side of organization change theory, helping to guide strategic planning and major organization development initiatives in organizations such as National Grid, Apple, Sherwin Williams, Clarke, VitaMix, Goo, and the UN Global Compact including companies such as Novo Nordisk, Telefonica, and Tata Industries. Obviously, over the decades in the field of management, I have seen a myriad of developments: the birth of the worldwide web; re-engineering of the corporation; participative management; the quality revolution; and many more. Because of my organizational science background I’ve also had a keen interest in how each particular management innovation affected the human side of enterprise—things like inspiration and hope, engagement, entrepreneurship and innovation, and supercooperative capacity. And herein lies my number one observation, after 30 years, from the real world: there is nothing that brings out the best in human enterprise faster, more consistently, or powerfully than calling the whole organization to design net-positive sustainability innovations to humanity’s greatest challenges.
As soon as people come together to accomplish ‘doing good’ out there—that is, concentrating and connecting their strengths in the service of building a better organization, or city, or world, they too begin to activate the PERMA mechanisms for their own and others’ flourishing.
Put another way, the active pursuit of sustainable value creation through SAF is not only about serving or satisfying external stakeholders, it is also core to individual flourishing and flowering inside the firm. Sustainable value creation and shared well-being reinforce one another and thereby serve to raise a far-reaching exploration: what is the link between advancing sustainability for a flourishing Earth, with the flourishing of the human side of enterprise? How precisely might an organization’s quest for sustainable value bring out the best not just on the outside—helping to advance a better society or world—but also almost simultaneously bring out the best on the ‘inside’—in the flourishing of people, the quality of their relationships, their health, their performance, and their capacity for growth, resilience, and positive change?
To be sure, this is not simply a theoretical question. If consistently true, then this is big news for the human resources industry and for every single leader who would love to have a workplace that is alive with purpose, meaning, passion, high engagement, trust, inspired innovation, and supercooperative agility. Could it be that the quest for sustainable value—when everyone in the corporation is galvanized in a coherent way for strategic sustainable innovation in the service of a more flourishing world—is the most significant human development opportunity of the 21st century?
Elsewhere I have speculated further with my colleague Ron Fry on this sustainable value or SAF-PERMA link. We’ve called it the mirror flourishing effect (see Cooperrider and Fry, 2012.)2 We could have labeled it many other things and we considered them all—reverse flourishing, positive transference, the so-called helper’s high, reflexive flourishing, or the hypothesis on “why good things happen to good people” (see Stephen Post’s comprehensive review, 2007).18
But the word ‘mirror’ seemed to offer a conceptual richness we were looking for. In neuroscience, for example, exploring the relationship between connections and contagion, there has been the conceptualization of a biological basis for empathy, the spread of emotion, and interaction consonance. It’s called the mirror neuron system where certain parts of the brain light up when we merely observe a tennis match—just as if we were ourselves actually playing the match (Christakis and Fowler, 2009).19
The discovery of the mirror neuron is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, and the spread of happiness across networks in a synchronized or consonant way. The concept of the mirror neuron helps explain the dynamic of consonance across living systems, the property of being alike, in harmony with, becoming at one with, or a growing together. Of course, this growing together can work for good and ill. When our companies are involved in destroying nature or value in the world—think, for example, of how the despairing people of BP were and still are feeling in relation to the horrifying images and experience of the Gulf oilspill—it’s easy to sense how the human side of that enterprise might enter a state of dissonant discontent or languishing, the very opposite of flourishing. There are colossal human costs of being part of destroying value, and much of the heartsickness you see in our world today happens because we know, deep down, that environmental and economic collapse is not separate from our lives.
Mirror flourishing suggests an intimacy of relations between entities to the point where we can posit that there is no outside and inside, only the creative unfolding of an entire field of relations or connections. As Martin Buber (1937) once wrote, “In the beginning is the relationship.”20 In a similar manner the metaphor of the mirror neuron helps us erase the traditional boundaries of separation. I will define mirror flourishing as the concrescence flourishing or growing together that happens naturally and reciprocally to us when we actively engage or witness in the acts that help nature flourish, others flourish, or the world as a whole to flourish.
When I spoke to the O.A.T. entrepreneurs who created a business for ‘shoes that bloom’ the group experienced a sense a joy and a delight in their words that was contagious. I too smiled when I wore my first pair of those sneakers. And then the emotion spread: it was repeated all over again when my children opened their presents, and then again when they asked if I could get the shoes as a gift for their friends. Does flourishing via the waypower of sustainably significant action flow through networks, just as a virus might? Perhaps. In fact, the sociology of networks shows that when a friend living less than a mile away becomes happy, it can increase the probability that you are happy by 25 percent or more—in other words, our emotions and states of well-being, even dimensions of our physical health, flow quietly through our connections. Social and ecological networks, including those with the more-than-human world, are sensitive, intricate, and perhaps even hardwired.
Mirror flourishing, then, is a more that a tangential episode; it is a predictable and observable trajectory. It is, in a word, a huge developmental force if we know how to harness it: we can intentionally and consciously create a flourishing workplace by extending beyond ourselves, by working to build a better world that flourishes. We gain life inside by nurturing life outside. And this, as we shall see, is a testable hypothesis: people that experience themselves, their organizations, and their relations as successfully and innovatively working to build a more sustainability-as-flourishing future will experience higher levels of well-being as expressed by the key well-being dimensions of PERMA.
The implications of this hypothesis are of course enormous. The phrase do good, do well becomes more than a social responsibility mantra. Of all the things that can bring out the best in human beings, one of the most transformational ones is the mirroring effect that happens when we help bring out the best in nature and in others. The reality of mirror flourishing, when it is experienced most authentically, might well be the human development business opportunity of our time, at least under certain conditions such as those found in whole-system change practice like the ‘AI’ Appreciative Inquiry Sustainable Design Factory, or what Illma Barros has termed holistic-AI where reflective practices powerfully punctuate intensive large group planning and designing.
In alignment with observations, what we are seeing emerge is an incomparable way to engage and turn on the entire workforce— where people come alive with purpose, meaning, hope, inspiration, and intrinsically motivated accomplishment. Mirror flourishing speaks to the unified and integral two-way flow between business and our world—this fundamental blurring of the boundaries of ‘in here’ and ‘out there’—and the possibility that when we help life ‘out there’ to flourish we cannot help but to benefit ourselves as well. I’ll never forget when, in a 500-person sustainable design summit at Fairmount Minerals, an employee team came up with a new business idea for a $15 dollar sand water filter.21 Ultimately, it would be deployed in 44 countries, saving lives all over the world. But it would also benefit the business; it was not so much charity as win-win sustainable value proposition. And the cross-functional team was on fire and inspired, filled with pride in the company. And like a resonant note in music—this kind of work ‘out there’ reverberated all the way down the line of site into many aspects of the everyday work experience. Can you imagine people lining up in droves to work for a sand mining company? We’re not talking Silicon Valley glitz and glamor. We’re talking about sand loader operators, engineers, finance specialists, and production supervisors. That’s what’s happening to this award-winning enterprise.
Outside of the sustainability literature, even without a name, there are now over 500 scientific studies on this doing good/doing well dynamic. Stephen Post (2007) has summarized many of them in a book titled Why Good Things Happen to Good People and argues that this doing good/doing well dynamic is ‘the most potent force on the planet.’18 If you engage in helping activities as a teen, for example, you will still be reaping health benefits sixty or seventy years later. But in all of this research there is not one study related to sustainability work, what happens to us when we restore nature, or the human impact in corporations leading the world in sustainable value. Obviously, the possibilities are wide open and vast.
The reversal of so much of the active disengagement in the workplace, as well as depression and heartsickness in our culture at large, might well be easier to accomplish than we think. There are more than 129,000,000 businesses operating across and around our blue planet. Imagine the positive mirror flourishing effect of millions of flourishing enterprise initiatives reverberating, scaling up, and amplifying. Imagine sustainability-as-flourishing and the predictable dynamic of mirror flourishing being actively harnessed as a massive human development leverage point. This is macro-obliquity in action. Neuroscience research supports all of this and suggests that people act their way into believing rather than thinking their way into acting.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” said Aristotle, “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Each one of us is a seed, a quiet promise, and through a combination of our engagement ‘out there’ and our reflective practices ‘in here’ we will discover that business truly does have the opportunity to be one of the most generative forces on the planet. And by taking initiative to introduce sustainability-as-flourishing into your organization, you will quickly find that you are not alone.
Many people today, like you, share the hope that the 21st century can become, without one moment of delay, an unprecedented era of innovation where businesses can excel, people can thrive, and nature can flourish.
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2 Cooperrider, D.L., & Fry, R. (2013). Mirror flourishing and the positive psychology of sustainability. Journal of Corporate Citizenship, 46, 3-12. 3 Ehrenfeld, J.R., & Hoffman, A.J. (2013). Flourishing: A frank conversation about sustainability. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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12 Weick, K. (1979). The social psychology of organizing. New York, NY: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
13 Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
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15 Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: APA Press and Oxford University Press.
16 Cooperrider, D., & Godwin, L. (2011). Positive organization development. K. Cameron and G. Spreitzer (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 17 Seligman, M. (2010). Flourish. New York, NY: Free Press.
18 Post, S. (2007). Why good things happen to good people. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
19 Christakis, N., & Fowler, J. (2009). Connected: How your friends’ friends’ friends affect everything you feel, think, and do. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company.
20 Buber, M. (1937). I and thou. New York, NY: Scribner and Sons.
21 Cooperrider, D., & McQuaid, M. (2013). The positive arc of systemic strengths: How appreciative inquiry and sustainable designing can bring out the best in human systems. Journal of Corporate Citizenship, 46, 1-32.
David Cooperrider, PhD is Professor and Chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University. He is a fellow of the World Business Academy and is the faculty director for the Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit.