As a matter of policy...

by Wilson Simmons

Here at the Foundation we have a lot of policies. And with good reason. These policies are part of a framework for protecting our most precious asset, the trust of our stakeholders. Crafting quality policy is hard. That is especially true in the current environment where transformation happens so fast. There is a natural give and take between a principle- versus a rules-based approach to policy construction. Accountants, like myself, are familiar with this dynamic. Our standard-setters have been oscillating between principle-based and rules-based approaches since their inception.

Recently nonmarket considerations like social justice, environmental preservation and income equality, things traditionally addressed by some nonprofits and other social service organizations, are front and center in many board rooms and shaping future policy on the corporate front. This reinforces the notion that all organizations, regardless of tax status, have a mandate to install polices and systems rooted in core values that place an emphasis on things like integrity. In other words, something closer to a principle-based approach. Ultimately, humans have to carry out policies. And therein lies the complex variable that no policy can get around, regardless of how it is constructed. We have differing moral constructs, ethical standards and have brains still hardwired with instincts from our hunting and gathering days.

I present the following for your consideration to illustrate just how complicated we are:

  • We all think we are ethical, but we aren’t. Read this Harvard Business School paper that explains it in detail. We put too much stock in our future self to do the right thing. Things like "ethical fading" and "unconscious bias" are real phenomena to which we are all susceptible.
  • Our morals can change depending on the situations. Just think about a recent commute. Did you yell or make gestures at another driver in disapproval of texting, cutting you off or speeding? Have you ever done these things yourself, but found a way to justify or rationalize the behavior?
  • Humans naturally gravitate into groups that support their view. We develop this tendency when we are young. Further, prior to our current 24-hour news cycle society, the evolutionary trait of group conformity was necessary for survival. There are plenty of highly public examples in which the “group-think” dynamic allowed questionable business practices to persist for years.

Regardless of whether you are a policy writer or follower, or just trying to understand what makes you tick, the topic of what makes us uniquely human is worth investigating. Understanding our innate strengths and weaknesses and how they impact our interactions and relationships are helpful in just about every facet of life.