Review: Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values

A highly meditative take on how to conduct oneself in life and in business with others, Kofman’s book, Conscious Business, contains much to discuss and learn. I picked it up in response to reading an article by Matt MacInnis, the CEO of San Francisco tech firm Inkling, where the book is required reading for all employees.

Having just wrapped up my first experience taking an early stage startup from 1 to 20 employees, and wishing to understand more about how leaders may intentionally create business culture where employees can not only create business value but thrive personally and emotionally as well, Conscious Business felt highly relevant.

Like many entries in the popular, introspective “how to succeed in business” genre, this book can be summed up quickly at a surface level with a few pieces of seemingly basic advice. Here they are, boiled down: First, take personal responsibility to the extreme, and approach problems from a place of curiosity about how you can take more responsibility. Second, practice extreme compassion in your dealings with others. Third, when you act in accordance with your values, you will succeed in life even when you appear to lose. I will address each of these main points and their implications.

Personal responsibility, to the max

I was a bit suspicious of the emphasis on “personal responsibility” at first, not because there’s anything wrong with the concept, but because it’s hard to separate from victim-blaming at first glance. It’s a term sometimes misused as a shorthand for a cruel lack of compassion or empathy. There are reams of “self help” books that take an anti-scientific and condemnatory stance toward anyone who hasn’t managed to overcome all adversity – it must just be their own fault. (Maybe I’ll discuss my issues with the positive psychology movement and its current vogue in Silicon Valley another time.)

One man’s “take responsibility” is another man’s “your problems aren’t my fault so I don’t care about you” or “if you fail you got what you deserved” – and that line of thought gets nasty and counterproductive really fast. Kofman clearly anticipates this reaction, and takes extreme pains to point out that taking “responsibility” has nothing to do with shouldering blame – and that his philosophy doesn’t have room for the cruelty of people who want to fling blame by commanding others to take “responsibility” for things that aren’t their fault. Crucially, he makes clear that bad things will happen in your life and business dealings that you could never have foreseen or prevented – but that you always have a choice about how to react and whether to step in and take responsibility for shaping whatever happens next. In other words, you can be a victim of a crime or mishap, and you can grieve whatever bad thing happened, but that alone can’t take away your power. It’s an important distinction!
I can't make decisions!

With helpful examples of how conversations might play out if the people involved take active, passive, hostile or helpful tones, Kofman illustrates the ideal of how to be thoughtful and responsible in difficult situations. Most chapters of Conscious Business include these dissections of hypothetical business interactions that I found fascinating from a psychological perspective; it’s an enlightening thought experiment in considering how much power you might hold in a conversation, and how one sentence in a different tone can shift the entire interaction.

The importance of compassion

This leads to the second main takeaway from this book – the importance of compassion in our workplace interactions. This is at the heart of his approach to relationships. If we are not able to thoughtfully exhibit open-minded curiosity about the people with whom we’re dealing, we can’t really hear them, we can’t really understand them, and we won’t get the most out of our interactions with them. In order to achieve the best results in our business interactions, we need to maintain a curious and receptive state of mind. This is impossible if we are ruled by our egos – if we are holding so firmly to our own ideas about what’s best that we can’t recognize when someone else truly has the better plan.

I suspect that many who read this book will recognize this egocentric urge to dominate and control others in themselves or their colleagues, or both. This style of interacting is how many of us are raised, and part of the mythology of the hard-charging, successful, Western businessperson.

Get a dog

Seeing most interpersonal conflict for what it is – insecurity and ego-protectiveness that can prevent business success and hinder innovation – can be painful, but is the first step toward stopping unnecessary, toxic, ego-based conflict in its tracks.

Success beyond success

Of course, not everyone we encounter will be receptive to our efforts at honest, compassionate, collaborative communication. Some people will still be angry, some people will just be jerks, some shipments will be late, some deals will crumble – no matter how hard you try to fix the situation or how nice you are about it to everyone. That’s life.

Kofman acknowledges this, and the third important point he makes is: If you cut corners, cheat others, lie, or otherwise behave dishonorably in business, you might win in the short term and you might still lose. If you behave honorably, in accordance with your deepest personal values (which for most people are actually honesty, integrity, and love), you might win in the short term and you might also still lose. But for a person who upholds their own internal values at all times, there is a success beyond success. Living life according to one’s true values is the ultimate goal, the real path to lasting happiness.

Business leaders should absolutely care about this outcome. It is in the interests of corporate leaders to create organizations that connect individual employees with a greater purpose and mission. Shared company values that align with those of individual contributors create a positive loop, where employees feel good about themselves, their work, and their organization as a whole. Research demonstrates that engaged, happy employees are a huge competitive advantage. In a Harvard Business Review article, Jim Harter Ph.D., a chief scientist at Gallup Research, summed up the value of a highly engagement workforce like this: “Engaged employees are more attentive and vigilant. They look out for the needs of their coworkers and the overall enterprise, because they personally ‘own’ the result of their work and that of the organization.”

Thumbs up

Kofman’s many assertions about the value of his communication methods would be made stronger by citations of the measurable business results gained by the organizations already practicing them. Having already read a great deal of literature on the topic of employee engagement as it relates to innovation and organizational health, I admit that I didn’t need much convincing. As the evidence on this topic piles up, I expect we’ll continue to see increasing interest among high performing executives in how to foster authentic engagement, happiness, and social connectedness in their teams.

Like many other business self-help books, this one is a bit heavy with quotes and repetition. Unlike many of its kind, though, it deals with the most basic facts of human nature and has something profound to say about how we can communicate more authentically, single-handedly improve our relationships, and, through our daily actions, strengthen our commitments to the values that connect us and give meaning to our lives.

Book review: Conscious Business, by Fred Kofman
5/5 stars

Further learning

Heavily referenced in Conscious Business:

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