When Taking A Stand On Divisive Issues, It’s Important To Reinforce The Corporation’s Purpose

Photo by Roberto Cortese on Unsplash

When Shopify’s founder and CEO, Tobi Lütke, found himself caught in a lose-lose dilemma, he took a decisive action that led to the departure of many senior executives. His staff had engaged in divisive exchanges on an internal Slack channel over the discovery of a noose emoji — an image that led some employees to suggest racist undertones. Whatever Lütke’s response was, he knew it would alienate one side or the other.

Rather than seek to placate both sides of the argument, he halted new comments from being posted and appealed to staff in an internal email to the mission that has made Shopify one of the world’s most successful tech companies. Lütke stated that the time spent on “endless Slack trolling, victimhood thinking, us-vs-them divisiveness and zero sum thinking” was distracting from the company’s mission of “ making commerce better for everyone.”

It was a lesson in how important it is to reinforce the company’s purpose, particularly at a time of intense polarization, aggression or uncertainty.

Three ways to reinforce your purpose

Below are three simple ways in which corporate executives can maintain their company’s integrity and stability amid social and political turmoil.

1. Reinforce purpose statements at every opportunity

Companies should take every opportunity to reassert their mission and purpose to ensure it’s embedded in the culture, posting the messaging in internal communications, intranet sites, and even on the office walls.

Shopify reinforces its mission to improve commerce in all public communications, including the reporting of its annual results. Companies can even start and end meetings by reaffirming their purpose, so employees never forget the “why” behind their work and constantly strive for mission alignment in their projects.

2. Invite employees to express their opinions openly and constructively

Not all opinions should be public, but employees need opportunities to speak candidly in a safe space. Employers then need to listen to input and be willing to explain what they are and aren’t going to act on and why.

For Patagonia, sticking to the mission meant joining the political conversation, spurred by a socially conscious team. When President Donald Trump announced in 2018 that more than a million acres of public lands would no longer be protected, the company filed a lawsuit against Trump and posted a dramatic message on their website and marketing channels reading: “The President Stole Your Land.”

Former CEO of Novo Nordisk, Mads Øvlisen, talks about striking employee task forces to speak to peers about where Novo Nordisk was failing in upholding its purpose. Buffering employee responses helped employees to be more forthcoming in speaking their mind.

3. Be willing to make difficult or unpopular decisions, but explain how they align with the corporation’s purpose.

Employees need to hear the rationale for why a controversial decision was made, and there’s no better explanation than strengthening the corporate mission. Not everyone will agree, but they won’t be able to argue that the decision conflicts with their values as a company, particularly if the message is delivered with candor. Sometimes, that means losing high-performing employees for the sake of staying true to the purpose.

Photo by olieman.eth on Unsplash

In 2020, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong banned conversations about societal issues, arguing that these conversations distracted attention from the company’s mission to “Increase economic freedom in the world.” Below is an excerpt from a Medium post he wrote about his rationale:

  • Debate causes or political candidates internally that are unrelated to work
  • Expect the company to represent our personal beliefs externally
  • Assume negative intent, or not have each others back
  • Take on activism outside of our core mission at work
  • Fight to get on the same page when we have differences
  • Support each other, and create team cohesion
  • Assume positive intent
  • Put the company goals ahead of our teams or individual goals

Armstrong even offered severance packages to employees unwilling to comply.

Take Care of Employee Needs that Support the Purpose

In the case of Shopify, when Lütke sent out his stern warning to the team, he was sincere and rational, balancing what the company wouldn’t do with what it would do.

“We cannot solve every societal problem here,” Lutke said in his all-staff email. “We are part of an ecosystem, of economies, of culture, and of actual countries. We also can’t take care of all your needs. We will try our best to take care of the ones that ensure you can support our mission.”

There are many divisive issues that arise in today’s world. Corporate executives need to take a stand on these issues. Silence is now seen as taking a stand in itself. A strong purpose can help not only guide which position to take, but explain the position that corporate executives choose to take.

Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.

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Professor and Canada Research Chair in Business Sustainability, Ivey Business School. Founder of the Network for Business Sustainability (www.nbs.net).

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Tima Bansal

Tima Bansal

Professor and Canada Research Chair in Business Sustainability, Ivey Business School. Founder of the Network for Business Sustainability (www.nbs.net).

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