“Know the story”: an article sketch for principled investors

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

Lately I’ve been sketching out an article for a Christian investors’ group. So far the idea looks like this:

What’s the story? How can you find and assess a company’s story about what it does – and what does the nature of that story have to do with the level and quality of its employees’ (and other constituents’) engagement and buy-in, and the way they treat others as they work?

In short, does the company tell a convincing, inspiring, flourishing-centric story about what they are contributing to the world? Or is it something less than that? And does it back up the story with consistent actions?

In this article, I would propose a sort of Maslow’s hierarchy of narratives – from least flourishing-focused (that is, engaging and inspiring) to most. This hierarchy would look something like this:

  • Purpose
  • Precepts
  • Pragmatics
  • Profits

More definition in a moment.

In its State of the American Workplace survey (check year), Gallup discovered a pattern in young (at the time, millennial) workers: they value “purpose over paycheck.” That is, alignment with the organization’s mission was higher on their list of priorities for an employment relationship. That is the “purpose” at the top of the hierarchy. And in a Christian analysis of a firm, that purpose should conduce to the flourishing of all significant constituencies with which the firm interacts—since the Christian vision is both a humanistic vision and a vision for the entire world and all peoples.

The famous – almost now cliched – “bricklayers story” illustrates the above hierarchy – though it leaves out “precepts” from the list above. Here’s one version:

One day in 1671, Christopher Wren observed three bricklayers on a scaffold, one crouched, one half-standing and one standing tall, working very hard and fast. To the first bricklayer, Christopher Wren asked the question, “What are you doing?” to which the bricklayer replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.” The second bricklayer, responded, “I’m a builder. I’m building a wall.” But the third brick layer, the most productive of the three and the future leader of the group, when asked the question, “What are you doing?” replied with a gleam in his eye, “I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral to The Almighty.”

Other versions elaborate a bit more on the “cathedral builder’s” response, by adding that the cathedral will provide a place of worship and community for the people living around it (thus providing for their flourishing even as they encounter their Lord).

While the “bricklayers story” would not be the focus of the article – again, it’s getting long in the tooth – it could be an apt illustration early in the piece. One can think of the “organizational story hierarchy” above as partially mapped onto the story something like this:

  • Profits = the bricklayer laying bricks to feed his family; inward-oriented and limited; the narrowest view of the four—whether held by an individual or by an organization
  • Pragmatics = the builder building the wall; presumably a public, if limited, good; useful to others but potentially subject to poor or dishonest work quality; an unsatisfyingly short horizon for the individual worker or the organization – “just doing each job, then moving on to the next one”
  • Precepts = absent from the story, but related to the way the work is carried out: ethically, without corruptions such as dishonesty, shoddiness; tends to be stated negatively, in terms of what we don’t do
  • Purpose = the cathedral builder creating a beautiful place of worship to bless people and God; this is the only level with a really satisfying and motivating vision for how particular work serves human flourishing

Another way of looking at the four levels:

  • Brick (profits): Bricks in and of themselves are not much good to anyone except the person or persons who own them. Stored potential. Commodity. Same with profit.
  • Wall: A wall provides some usefulness to others – it can mark boundaries, protect what’s behind it, hold up something built on top of it. Same with pragmatics: this is the realm of real but limited value
  • [Precepts: These serve mostly a protective and regulative function; they cannot be the main story]
  • Cathedral: speaks directly and more fully to a vision for human flourishing

Note that ads for consumer products such as cars or pharmaceuticals always promise by implication the highest level (purpose, flourishing). The ads rarely delve into the technical aspects of pragmatics. They also tend not to address precepts (ethics), though medicine ads always include the long string of potential side effects – to fulfil legal responsibilities. But ads always show alluring images of people living their best lives – smiling, enjoying themselves, “flourishing” (if in incomplete ways). That is because organizations intuit that this is indeed their potential customers’ highest priority and level of need.

But at the same time, most viewers of TV ads (for example) intuit the lie: this car or medication may change some aspects of my life, but it will fall short of providing the full flourishing portrayed in the product’s ad.

And in the organization’s actual performance of its work, there may be a similar gap between the purpose-rich promise and a more pragmatic or profit-driven performance. For example, workplace theologian Will Messenger has talked about his experience as a young man working in sales for a large computer company that prided itself on providing and supporting “workplace solutions” that prioritized serving the particular needs of each business customer. But in his work as a salesman, he increasingly experienced pressure to sell certain products and services, whether they truly served the customer’s needs or not. A more recent example is the Wells Fargo scandal, in which that bank’s representatives sold customers accounts they didn’t need (that is, accounts that didn’t serve their flourishing at all but were profit-drivers for the bank).

In short, if the purpose story is belied by practices dominated by profit, then this not only breaks the company’s promise to the world; it also demotivates its own employees. The research that shows that $$ is a poor motivator (e.g. Barry Schwartz, Why We Work, and his empirical research sources). And that, as Van Duzer argued, while profit is undeniably the lifeblood of any for-profit corporate organism, it cannot be effective as the central motivator at an organizational/institutional level either.

Finding the stories: There are many windows into firms’ stories about themselves: annual reports, PR materials (such as marketing brochures, speeches by company principals, product roll-out events, and product manuals or descriptions of services), ads, profiles in business magazines and other organs, news articles on aspects of the company’s performance, customer reviews, and other sorts of reflections (e.g. on social media) by employees, customers, suppliers, and other constituents.

Assessing the stories:  Up-front, acknowledge that this sort of story assessment is fallible.

It may best be accompanied by due diligence on negative effects of the company’s business style (as per previous communications with Tim).

Believability is important. Do you see business practices that contradict the purpose narrative (as with the computer company and Wells Fargo examples above)?

Also, even the precepts level can be honorable and add to human flourishing. But if it is not accompanied by a robust and consistent purpose narrative it is vulnerable to de-motivation and detachment of workers and even execs – and that can even result in the most negative Gallup workplace survey category: people so disengaged or disgruntled that they are working against the company.

Only a full purpose story about how the company makes the world better by contributing to flourishing is fully satisfying for employees and builds true long-term loyalty, eliciting the best efforts from those who work for and with the organization.

Purpose narrative assessment criteria for faithful investors:

  • Is the purpose narrative fitting (to your Christian understanding of humanity and the world) or not?
  • Is it important (not trivial) as a contributor to the world and humanity given that understanding? Be careful of assuming that leisure goods or luxury goods are not important but trivial; see e.g. Josef Pieper on leisure.
  • Is it timely – or out of date; does it meet older needs but the world has moved on? In other words, is the purpose narrative honorable and fitting but challenged by a failure to keep up with contextual changes – so that (for example) its products or services may have served people’s flourishing 25 or 10 years ago, but less so now, or in the future?
  • Is it all of the above, and also humble? Or presented and pursued in an arrogant and self-serving way?

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