I recently participated in a conference on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), where I gave a short presentation on the role of critical thinking in leading a company toward better social performance. Basically, I argued that in order to motivate employees to embrace some version of CSR — whatever you take that to mean — you need need to think critically about the way your CSR activities dovetail with the goals of your organization, and with the values and commitments that are already motivating your employees.
Interestingly, I received some push-back, in the form of a question from the audience, from someone who suggested that what CSR efforts really need is passion and a sense of purpose. What’s really needed, this person said, is not critical thinking at all. Indeed, for purposes of pushing the CSR agenda forward, critical thinking is actually a bad idea.
As someone who teaches critical thinking for a living, I was naturally somewhat taken aback.
This person had a point, of course: getting something done — whether it’s opening a new division or launching a new product or strengthening your CSR profile — takes passion. It takes commitment. And sometimes critical thinking, which involves asking questions, could seem like a stumbling block. Now isn’t always the right moment for asking annoying questions and expressing doubt.
But I thought I would take the time to lay out, here, the role that critical thinking can play — indeed, must play — in launching CSR activities and bringing them to fruition.
To begin, what is critical thinking anyway? Most of us have a sense of what it is, and most people are generally in favour of it, in most contexts, but what is it? The textbook definition is that critical thinking is the systematic evaluation or formulation of beliefs or statements by rational standards. In other words, it’s about figuring out what to believe, and doing so by determining what beliefs are backed by good reasons. It means asking questions like, “Is that really true?” “How do I know that?” “How certain am I?” and “What assumptions am I making?”
So, how in particular does this apply to CSR?
First of all, a company needs to think critically in order to decide what its CSR objectives are. It doesn’t make sense for a company to dive into CSR by tackling any and every project that anyone has ever associated with that concept.
So, think critically. Will you focus on minimizing (or off-setting) the environmental impact of your operations? Will you incentivize employees to volunteer for charities? Will you build a hospital in a remote village? Will philanthropy be part of your CSR portfolio? Passion is important, but so is directing your passion. Setting objectives requires asking hard questions. It requires, in short, critical thinking. (For a more detailed take on how to think critically about your company’s CSR agenda, see Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s article, “Strategy and Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility”).
Second, a successful CSR program requires that a company think critically about methods. The need for businesses to think critically about methods is quite literally why universities have business schools. Managing is not easy. Regardless of the issue at hand, managing requires developing a strategy that makes good use of the materials at hand in order to reach your objectives.
So once you’ve decided that, for example, that you want one chunk of your CSR program to focus on literacy, then what? Do you leverage your highly-educated workforce by sending your employees out to volunteer at an adult literacy clinic? (And how do you motivate them? Simply offer them the chance to do it on company time? Offer bonuses? What else?) Do you partner with other like-minded companies to raise awareness? Do you build pro-literacy messages into your own product-oriented advertising? Or do you merely donate money to the first literacy-oriented charity you find? Is there evidence that that will have an impact? The most impact?
Finally — and this was the part I focused on in my presentation — think about engagement. It should go without saying that a successful CSR program requires the engagement of your employees. After all, a profit-oriented company that suddenly decides that it takes its social responsibilities seriously may well find itself facing a skeptical, or otherwise hesitant, workforce. If you say “we put community first,” but employees secretly believe that the unwritten rule is “profit above all,” they’re going to find all sorts of ways, passive or active, to undermine your CSR activities.
So you need to think critically about what your own argument in favour of CSR is. If you can’t express why you believe in CSR (again, whatever you take that to mean) then you’re not going to be able to convince others that they should believe in it. In other words, can you actually explain, in a credible way, what’s motivating the company (or you, the boss) to take CSR seriously? Is it that you think some version of CSR dovetails so well with the company’s mission? Or is it because you see a win-win outcome that links the good of the community to the company’s own strategic needs (e.g., the need to foster a healthy workforce)? Explain the rationale, in order to convince employees that the move is an authentic one.
A further element of critical-thinking-for-engagement is to help employees see that active support for your CSR program makes sense given what they already value and believe in, and that it’s OK for them to bring those values — their generosity, their sense of community, their passion for the environment — to work with them. In other words, give your employees a pro-CSR argument that is grounded in their own values and beliefs. Doing so requires thinking critically about the various arguments in favour of social responsibility, understanding their structure, and deciding which ones both work logically and are rooted in starting points your employees can accept.
That, in short, is the role that critical thinking must play in any company’s attempt to take corporate social responsibility seriously. This obviously isn’t anything remotely like a full and complete recipe for carrying out a CSR agenda. There are lots of people who can give you better advice about that than I can. But it’s worth giving due credit to the role that critical thinking needs to play. Because while a successful CSR program does need passion, passion that is not guided by critical thinking might well prove fruitless, or worse.
Socrates taught us that the unexamined life is not worth living. One tiny implication of that is that the unexamined CSR initiative is not worth initiating.