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The Conscious Company and Other Myths

The Conscious Company and Other Myths

The Conscious Company: it’s that buzzy piece of corporate speak we’ve all been hearing and using without really thinking about it. The irony is that we’re not conscious of what so-called company consciousness actually means.

What most organizations really mean when they call themselves “conscious” is conscientious: wishing to do what is right. There are tons of post-millennial “conscious” companies that show compassion, prioritize ethics, and give back to communities. Consider, for example, the charitable policy of Tom’s Shoes: for every pair of shoes you buy, the company donates a pair to a child in need.

Conscientiousness is, of course, a wonderful, virtuous thing–a quality in a company that can bring larger good into our world.

But what if we actually took the “conscious” in “conscious company” to literally mean consciousness–a heightened state of awareness? What would a genuinely conscious company look like?

This isn’t merely a matter of semantics or wordplay. Bringing the notion of consciousness into an organization can be a game-changing move. The deep self-awareness and knowledge implied by consciousness is at the heart of why some companies succeed and others fail.

Before we look more closely at the conscious company, it will be useful to look more closely at what we mean by consciousness. This is a complicated question that’s long perplexed philosophers, psychologists, neurobiologists, and artificial intelligence specialists.

Each kind of expert has his or her own definition of consciousness. For instance, neurobiologists study brain waves–the chemo-electrical energy that our brains make–embracing a clinical, empirical view of consciousness. Those in the realm of artificial intelligence talk about machine consciousness, or synthetic consciousness, showing how we can replicate fundamental human brain functions in machines: basic abilities like awareness, imitation, acquisition of knowledge, memory, anticipation, and higher-order abilities like creativity and ethical reasoning. Psychologists informed by Freud and Jung take a more subjective, individualized approach to theorizing consciousness, exploring how past experiences stored in our unconsciousness inform our waking consciousness.

These many different accounts of consciousness speak to the intricacy of this heightened state of being. When a company becomes conscious, it activates all of these various forms of awareness.

Why is it important for a company to gain consciousness? There are three guiding principles that can help us see the benefits that any conscious organization enjoys. The first is that being aware is better than being unaware. This may seem like a no-brainer, but the insight here is indispensable. The Gallop Organization recently studied and ranked companies based on their employee engagement score and the company at the top–USAA–also had extremely high customer satisfaction scores. Thus, the most self-aware, the most engaged organization is also one of the happiest: the more conscious a company is, the more people will like it.

The second principle is that being self-aware helps companies align their intentions with their actions, to make strategic decisions directly out of goals and desires. Here, Google’s favorite corporate motto immediately comes to mind: “Don’t be evil.” This represents a union of intention and action through strategy.

The third principle is that mindfulness allows the company to anticipate the future. With this predictive knowledge, companies can develop competencies and alliances that capitalize on opportunities and avoid threats. In 2006, Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford, did precisely this. He secured $23 billion in loans for the organization–an amount well in excess of what was needed to restructure the company. He did it because he thought that a recession was imminent and he wanted to avoid bankruptcy. By looking forward, he ensured that Ford would thrive at a moment when so many of its peers suffered.

The great paradox of human consciousness is that, in order to reach it, we must look both inside ourselves and outside at others–friends, neighbors, communities. This is also true for the company: the optimal state of awareness is one that integrates an organization’s idiosyncrasies with the dynamics of entire industries and global concerns.

Achieving consciousness is not a state you can reach by simply following concrete steps. It’s a state of awareness that looks different for every company, that requires many different skills at different moments of an organization’s life. Here are three questions to ask yourself as your company finds its way to consciousness.

What is the mind of your company? If you had to locate the central nervous system of your organization in a particular sector, where would that be? The most conscious companies will have a neural center that is fresh, diverse, and dynamic. If the mind of your company is headquartered in your senior executive team, then your company isn’t very conscious because it has a very limited purview, a built-in myopia. Try to build a neural center with the widest view possible.

Is your company self-aware? A true sign of self-reflexivity is the ability to make sense of the things that happen within and around you. The most effective way to do this is by coming up with a narrative arc. What is the story of your company? And can your organization tell that story to itself–and to others?

How does your company integrate its parts into a perceived whole? Successful groups of all kinds–families, teams, organizations–bring together their individual units with a guiding principle. Businesses too often rely on empty, superficial concepts like leadership or culture as unifying forces. Consciousness is not the same thing as culture–it’s something greater than that. How does your company synch itself up?

Like a good, difficult question, consciousness is not a single problem that is solved once: it continues onward and gains complexity over time. So once you ask these key questions, go on to ask new ones. How will your company see, feel, and reason its way toward a more conscious future?

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