What we owe each other

What we owe each other

Reading Time: 3 minutes

When a brand’s store of value overflows, there’s usually an undercurrent of I care about what you care about going on between me and you. It shows up in both the promises made and agreed upon.

Within those same promises is a contract called ‘what we owe each other’. In his book by that name, moral philosopher T.M. Scanlon calls this underlying idea ‘contractualism‘.

If the phrase and book are familiar, you probably watched the TV show The Good Place (or you’re a student of moral philosophy). And luckily for us, the show’s creator, Michel Schur, does some Herculean heavy lifting on the topic in his own book about the world’s foremost schools of philosophical thought, called ‘How to be perfect’.

Schur distils Scanlon’s central thesis into something relatable in hugely entertaining prose. He picks up the concept with an endless warfare analogy, where each side is exhausted and calls a truce.

Schur continues, “We need a set of rules that can be accepted by both sides, no matter how different our views are… Scanlon’s suggestion: We give everyone on both sides the power to veto every rule, and then we start pitching rules. Assuming everyone is motivated to actually find some rules in the first place… the rules that pass are the ones no one can reject… it’s a simple, elegant way of finding the basic bucket of societal goo that holds us together.”

There is, of course, a large elephant in the corner of this idea. Schur says it requires that “we both want to design a world where we accommodate each other’s needs”. Ultimately what Scanlon and Schur are talking about is a contract where you and I are equally invested in the social capital we create.

Amid escalating tensions in the workplace, Scanlon’s thinking has a lot to offer. But if you’re not into books that make your brain explode, take a spin through pages 82-92 in “How to be perfect’. I love that the central tenant of contractualism is not asking if we owe each other stuff. But, starting from we do.

Back to our bountiful brands and the underpinning promises. The we holds the key. And while rules for the whole of society might feel impossible. Organisations are more fathomable—each comprising identifiable sets of me and you.

Me and you. As co-workers, customer and sales person, frontline worker and manager, supplier and procurement. Collective me as the organisation and you as the investor, etc. And between us sits social capital that we trade in the promises we make, then keep or break.

Here’s where things get interesting. Because if every promise has to start from scratch, there’s a decent chance we’ll get it wrong most of the time. And often, that’s what happens. Absent an agreement around our rules; it’s open hostility between us and them and, at worst, every man out for himself.

This is why crafting a genuine identity of values and purpose matters. They turn into the rules for how we do the right things. Forgetting tortured navel-gazing and aspirational musing, talking about ‘what we owe each other’ is a more inclusive place to begin the process.

When the rules are misleading, fuzzy or absent, it’s no wonder our responses go south, and before you can say Hatfields and McCoys, we’re back to the warring factions Schur talks about. Disgruntled staff leave, infecting others with bad will. Jibbed suppliers hold up vital parts, which cascade into stock delays. Unhappy customers vent on Facebook, kicking off social media maelstroms.

Taking time to involve everyone when pitching the rules is the organisational equivalent of declaring a truce. When I know what I owe and feel the rules are fair, I’m more likely to see us as we instead of you versus me.

Instead of angst, now I’m churning out value. As a result, my social capital grows, expanding exponentially. And soon, the brand overflows with goodwill I can use to do more work.

See you next time.

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