Reflection 43: Radical Decency in Business: A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time . . .

A group of friends stumbled upon a smart iconoclastic writer, Daniel Quinn, who told this story. As a struggling author in the 1980s, he, his wife, and three colleagues started a newspaper in rural New Mexico. The paper was only modestly successful, but they persisted.

While making money was vitally important, they soon realized that their higher priority – the one that kept them going – was their pleasure in working together. Quinn labeled this a modern day tribe; a group of people bound together, not by physical proximity, but by a work environment in which they were able to thrive as people.

To the group of friends, Quinn made a lot of sense. Since work dominated the best hours of the great majority of their days – and so much of their energy – why not make it a primary place of sustenance? Instead of being an unfortunate exception to their most deeply held values – at the center of their lives – why couldn’t work be a place where, surrounded by people they liked, admired, and trusted, their lives found vital expression?

So they decided to go into business together. The type of business didn’t really matter. It could have been a computer company, a chiropractic office, a used car lot, a farm. What was important was this: Having spent years at typical mainstream places of business, they were determined to operate differently.

Here is what they decided to do. Because their economic future would depend upon it, profitability would be priority 1A, vitally important but clearly subordinate to their first priority, Radical Decency; decency to self, others and the world – at all times, in every context, and without exception.

Because some members of the group had been involved in similar projects in the past, they knew how easy it was to embrace Radical Decency in theory and how hard it is to apply it day by day, especially in the pressured packed environment of a business.

So in the beginning they went slowly – exploring the idea in detail, allowing the group to evolve organically. Eventually, a core group of people emerged that understood the approach to living, were eager to organize their work lives around it and, importantly, were willing and able to meaningfully contribute – each in their unique way – to the budding business’ profitability. In other words, all the initial participants had a clear and strong commitment to priority 1 – and to priority1A.

Getting the project off the ground was wrenchingly difficult. In addition to the typical problems a new business must face, the organizers had to figure out what it meant to actually run a business in a radically decent way.

From day one, big, obvious, wisdom stretching questions had to be answered.

  • Who “owns” the company and what rights are associated with ownership?
  • How do you allocate profits and risk of loss?
  • How to you price products when your decency commitment whole-heartedly extends to your customers (foreclosing mainstream business’ far simpler “whatever the market will bear” approach)?
  • What is fair compensation at every level?
  • How are decisions made in an environment where a collegiality is not just a hoped for result but it at the heart of the firm’s mission?
  • How do you fully honor the concept of decency to self – for every participant – without unduly compromising Priority 1A?

What also became apparent, early on, is that little things were vitally important. Virtually everyone involved had long experience working at “business as usual” companies. Mainstream habits of operating were what they knew and instinctually fell back upon at times of stress. And, on the flip side, no manuals were available for operating a radically decent business, to guide them and keep them on track.

It was all new, complicated, frustrating, and perplexing.

Given all of this, an ever present danger was that day-to-day business pressures would drag them back to mainstream ways of operating, one small compromise at a time: Toleration of a powerful employee’s entitled behavior here; a willingness to subtly manipulate an unsuspecting customer there; and so on. The best antidote? An intense, detailed, even obsessive attention to the company’s mission in all things, large and small.

So in the early days, a lot of time was spent figuring out what Radical Decency had to teach them about, well, just about everything: Running meetings; talking to each other – and to customers, vendors, and competitors; dealing with co-worker conflict; even procedures for keeping the lunch and bath rooms clean.

These seemingly endless conversations were a frequent source of frustration, since “important” work had to get done. But it was time well spent. As time past, their ability to more fully understand the implications of Radical Decency in business grew and grew and, with it, their sure footedness in putting it into practice. Like a hitter obsessively practicing an improved swing, new, more decent ways of operating eventually became their engrained, habitual ways of operating.

And as this process unfolded, good things started to happen at an accelerating pace.


It is not uncommon for a company to promote itself as a nice place to work, backing this promise up with pot sweetening benefits such as flex time or more generous maternity leave. But, at this company, decency and fairness were built into the very fabric of its personnel policies. Full disclosure of company finances; fair and transparent compensation at all levels; equitable sharing of sacrifice; open and collegial decision-making – all of these were standard operating procedures. The result: The company attracted an unusually capable, imaginative and loyal group of employees.

Word also began to get out to an expanding group of customers that, here, Radical Decency was more than just a marketing slogan. Fashioned to reflect its mission:

  • The quality of its products and services was exceptional, and none exceeded its ability to deliver;
  • Pricing was fair and transparent; and
  • Everyone doing business with the company was treated with unusual thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

The company’s approach didn’t appeal to everyone. Some potential customers only understood a dog eat dog approach. Others, not understanding its very different approach, thought the company was a soft touch; someone they could take advantage of. And a number of people lost interest when they learned that wasn’t the case. But many others, almost stunned to learn that business was actually being conducted in this way, became fiercely loyal customers – the company’s most reliable source for new business.


The company’s success also showed up in other, less quantifiable ways.

Because it nurtured a relaxed and open environment, where problems could be raised and worked though, employees almost never started the day with knots in their stomachs.

While everyone understood that performance over time was a must, they never allowed this unforgiving reality to morph into a “no mistakes tolerated” or “no sacrifice for the office is too much” atmosphere. Workers comfortably acknowledged times of lesser productivity – due to a marital crisis, or a physical or emotional issue – and reasonable allowances were made. The firm’s culture also allowed people to acknowledge mistakes and areas of weakness, even as its shared sense of mission inspired them to improve and strive for excellence.

In a similar way, while long hours were at times required, equal attention was paid to the other side of the equation. Everyone understood that everything isn’t a crisis. In less frenetic times, people felt free to attend a daughter’s Thursday afternoon soccer game or take an extra week few weeks for that once in a life time vacation – understanding that their a willingness to be fully available, when needed, was the thing what made this extraordinary flexibility possible.


Over time, the company also found its way to collaborators who not only got what they were doing but, in a growing number of cases, were eager to re-caste their own businesses into radically decent enterprises. And so, their company became a catalyst for an expanding network of radically decent businesses.

At a purely income generating level, this network was a big success. Because their relationships were based on a shared mission, and not just economic self-interest, referrals happened far more frequently. In addition, because of their philosophical compatibility, leads were turned into customers on a much more regular basis.

And as this network grew, its successes extended far beyond the vital but ultimately mundane world of customers, sales, and revenue. As tricky as decency to self and others can be, crafting ways to meaningfully contribute to a more decent world can be mind-meltingly complicated. But the possibilities for effective action expand exponentially when retail businesses, nonprofit service providers, real estate developers, hi-tech companies, colleges, and widget manufacturers are bound together by a full throttled commitment to Radical Decency. Before long:

  • Landlords were collaborating with mental health trauma specialists to offer respite housing to victims of abuse;
  • People with employment challenges were being placed at radically decent businesses by radically decent healers and career consultants;
  • Investors were funding new radically decent businesses as well as Radical Decency initiatives in politics; and,
  • Articles, books, courses, seminars and retreats were being offered to discuss lessons learned and to craft more strategic and effective ways to implement Radical Decency at all levels – from the most intimate and personal to the most public and political.


And the group of friends? Well, things evolved and changed. Some stayed at their widget company. Others, intrigued with other aspects of the expanding movement, moved on. But bound together by a common mission, they maintained a warm, intimate, and nourishing connection.

. . .   and they lived – ever after – with an ennobling purpose and energizing sense of possibility.