Reflection 52: Marketing Radical Decency

Radical Decency is an action and process oriented approach to living. It is not based on an a priori set of beliefs about the nature of reality. Instead, it is grounded in our biological limitations and potentialities and, then, works with these empirical truths to offer behavioral guidelines that cultivate better lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world.

These guidelines – respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice – are the meat and potatoes of Radical Decency. Equally important, however, are the means by which they are implemented. To achieve the philosophy’s ambitious goals, substance and process – means and ends – need to be in harmony.

Adopting this approach, Radical Decency rejects the idea – condoned and widely adopted in the mainstream culture – that a worthy goal gives us permission to temporize on the means employed to attain it. Radical Decency views with deep suspicion the politician or social reformer who claims that he is (1) “playing the game” to (2) get power, so that once in power, he can (3) reform the system. Why? Because it doesn’t work: Part (3) never seems to happen.

Indeed, the deeper truth is that this “ends justifies the means” approach is a key way in which the efforts of well-intentioned people are domesticated and marginalized. In their zeal to be effective – to be big, to have a perceptible impact in the world – they are seduced into ways of operating that reflect the culture’s predominant values. In the end, they wind up perpetuating the very system they seek to reform.

With these premises in mind, I have puzzled, for many years, over this question: How can we maintain Radical Decency as an unyielding, uncompromisable priority and, at the same time, effectively present it – market it – to others.

Here are my thoughts.


The predominant culture has evolved a myriad of mechanisms –subtle, indirect, and devastatingly effective – for corroding and neutralizing change efforts. Thus, it is no surprise that it offers a ready answer to my question: To be successful, Radical Decency needs to be effectively marketed and sold, just like any other product in the marketplace of ideas.

When I first started working with Radical Decency, I instinctually accepted this approach as the “smart” thing to do. If I wanted to succeed, how could I do otherwise?

Over the years, however, I have come to realize that this approach fundamentally conflicts with Radical Decency’s core principles, emasculating in the process both the message and the movement we hope to nurture around it.

The proponents of this approach tend to be business-smart people; a group that I very much identify with, given my many years as an attorney and mainstream political activist. Drawing on their experience, and success, in the mainstream world, they instinctually push marketing initiatives that people like themselves, with money and real world smarts, find familiar and comfortable.

Steeped in these approaches, their messages are carefully crafted to avoid any buzzwords that might be off-putting to mainstream audiences. In the process, however, they soft-pedal the philosophy’s more visionary and radical ideas and, to the extent possible, make them sound like good, smart business. And because these are “mere marketing strategies” designed to “sell the product,” they seldom see them as posing any risk to the philosophy’s core message.

The fundamental problem with this approach? It vastly underestimates the depth of our immersion in the mainstream culture’s habits of thought and action.

Rising above these entrenched ways of being is a daunting task, even when all of our energy is focused on that goal. And when, in this context, our marketing strategies adopt the mainstream culture’s language and tone, and continually seek to rationalize Radical Decency based on that culture’s “compete and win” premises, the all too predictable result is dilution, confusion and diminishment of the philosophy’s transformative message and purposes.

A second, more practical – but equally fatal – flaw with this approach is that, in its pursuit, conventionally minded people are invited to become key players in our radically decent enterprises. The problem here is that the mainstream smarts, that makes these people attractive collaborators, also makes them instinctually biased toward status quo ways of operating. And as they become more and more influential in the movement, there is an ever-increasing risk that their mainstream outlooks and tactics will supplant Radical Decency’s more radical vision.

In the end, the inconvenient truth is that conventional marketing strategies are fundamentally inconsistent with the philosophy’s principles. Their goal – to mold the message to meet the target audience’s expectations – embraces a manipulative approach that is deeply at odds with the philosophy’s goal of fostering mutual and authentic contact in every interaction and area of living. Their pre-occupation with winning the competition for money, members, and influence – by whatever means necessary– is, in truth, a return to the very values Radical Decency seeks to supplant.


So what would a radical decent marketing strategy look like?

It would, to be sure, take full advantage of the many creative technologies that would allow our ideas and programs to reach to a wider audience. And it would strive to present Radical Decency as the exciting, creative and, potentially, life- and world-altering program it truly is. At the same time, however, it would avoid the over promising/“tell them what they want to hear”/manipulative practices that are such a comfortable – and assumed part – of so many marketing programs. Above all, the message would be invitational; avoiding any suggestion that Radical Decency is “the way” or “the only way.”

This is not to suggest that we should become diffident or falsely modest in our presentation. Radical Decency and approaches like it are desperately needed in our lives and in the world. So while remaining invitational in our approach, the message would be strong, clear, and appropriately amplified.

We will be doing our job well if, in our marketing, we offer a “passionate invitation” while always taking care never to slip into proselytization or manipulative persuasion. With such an approach in place, our message to the larger world would be this:

  • If you are fully in, great. We are confident that you will be richly rewarded for your choice.
  • If you and I share some but not all of Radical Decency’s premises, that is fine too. Perhaps our ongoing dialogue will reveal commonalities, and new and creative ways of collaborating.
  • And if you have no interest, we genuinely wish you well in finding your way knowing that, in the end, we have no monopoly on wisdom.

The goal: To allow people, exposed to our marketing material, to feel engaged with in an authentic and respectful way; allowing them to consider our ideas – and possible participation in our programs – from a place of increasing trust and open mindedness.

With this approach, we will never feel pushed to compromise Radical Decency’s core values in the process of marketing them. We will, instead, be enriched by the continually challenge of practicing and modeling marketing strategies that fully reflect them.

In all of this, the issue of effectiveness is very much in play. Foregoing traditional marketing tactics will undoubtedly leave many opportunities on the table. But if we are serious about creating an alternative approach to living – and maintaining its integrity –there is no other way. The truth in this area, as in so many others, is that there are no easy choices. As tempting as they are, marketing strategies that temporize on Radical Decency’s core values – for the sake of short-term gain – are misguided. The pull of the culture’s mainstream values is simply too strong.

Reflection 44: Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships

A gifted supervisor – when you can find one – is one of the great benefits of being a psychotherapist. I was lucky enough to find one in Carol Brockmon. One highly useful tool she introduced me to was the distinction between intimate and strategic relationships.

In this Reflection, I explain that distinction and elaborate on some of its more important implications.

Here is a typical interaction in a strategic relationship. Needing to make a key decision, a department head at a conventional, mainstream business convenes a two-hour staff meeting at 1 p.m. Being an enlightened leader, she encourages an open and vigorous exchange with each team member freely stating his or her beliefs. Now, it’s 2:59. The discussion ends and the department head makes her decision. Whether they fully agree or not, the rest of the staff is expected to fall in line.

Here, by contrast, is a typical intimate interaction. A husband and wife sit down at 1 p.m. to discuss where to send their son to school. Now it is 2:59, after a lot of back and forth, no agreement has been reached. What happens? A decision is deferred. The couple keeps talking.

The difference? In the first scenario, the priority is on achieving a goal – getting something done. In the second, the highest priority is on the relationship itself – on creating and maintaining an empathic, loving relationship.

Note, importantly, that these categories are not mutually exclusive. Strategic relationships work better when tools of intimacy are used. The department head could have simply sent a memo saying, this is what we’re going to do. But she understood that an open exchange of ideas, properly managed, improves the staff’s morale, its willingness to embrace the ultimate decision, and, more often than not, the overall quality of the decision as well.

Similarly, there are many strategic aspects to an intimate relationship. A decision about their son’s school has to be made. The couple can’t keep talking until November.

What makes this distinction so useful, however, is that it clarifies our confusion on both sides of the equation.


Discussions in which couples kill each other, arguing over what to do – in this situation or that – are endemic. Over and over in my practice, I remind couples that, 90% of the time, either choice is acceptable. A visit to mom or a day at the beach with the kids; how much cleaning is enough; how and when to pay the bills; the toilet seat up or down – there really aren’t any “right” and “wrong” decisions.

So, I repeatedly urge couples, put outcomes on the back burner. Remember that this is an intimate relationship and, for that reason, the far more important part of the discussion is not the subject itself but your emotional needs and those of your partner.

Viewed from this perspective, you should clean the dishes before leaving the kitchen, not because it’s the “right” thing to do but because you are stretching to love her in a way that is meaningful to her. Conversely, the reason for asking her to leave earlier for the airport has everything to do with your emotional comfort and nothing to do with good planning. After all, in all the years before she became your partner, she always managed to be in her seat when the plane took off.

When your priority is on the emotions that inform your intimate discussions, and not on outcomes, the results are dramatic. Focused on each partner’s needs and desires – yours and his – your empathy, patience, and skill at loving and being loved will grow and grow. At the same time, those seemingly inevitable, repetitive flare-ups will become less common and easier resolved.

And, guess what? Regardless of where you come out on the substantive issue – her solution, his, or a compromise – everyone will survive just fine.


On the strategic side of the equation, our confusions are just as great. What I notice, here, is the frequency with which we become wedded to emotional outcomes in situations that are plainly strategic.

The most obvious place where this occurs is at our mainstream places of business. Work could be a place where intimate relationships are the norm – a possibility I wrote about in Reflection, #43. Unfortunately, in our culture that is rarely the case. Hence that Reflection’s title: Radical Decency in Business: A Fairy Tale.

For this reason, the hypothetical that follows deals with what is – and not what could be.

Lou works in a small department and one of his co-workers – call him Fred – is harassing him. Fred refuses to provide Lou with information he needs to do his job, does everything he can to undercut Lou’s credibility with the boss, and even – deliberately, it seems – clutters their common work area with his files.

While important, Lou’s job is not his life’s priority. That would be his wife, kids, and private passions. And yet, he gets sucked into this unsolicited war, registering repeated complaints about Fred’s conduct, creating extensive written rebuttals, and obsessively plotting ways to “win” the battle for his boss’ good opinion by strategically pointing out – at staff meetings and endless water cooler conversations – why he is right and Fred is wrong.

The problem, of course, is that Lou – like so many of us – is unable to maintain emotional clarity about the context in which he is operating. At a typical work place, the priority is on getting things done and not on dealing with people’s feelings. But in seeking to win his battle with Fred, Lou is seeking an emotional outcome – an acknowledgment that is anger is justified and that he is held in high regard by his co-workers and boss. And in service of that goal, he deeply engaged at an emotional level.

Ideally, Lou would treat Fred’s behaviors as he would the acts of a stranger – unpleasant, unwanted but, ultimately, of no emotional significance. Maintaining that distance, he would no longer be caught up in responsive anger and anxiety about becoming an outcast in this work “family.” And with these uncomfortable and distracting emotions out of the picture, he could deal with Fred’s behaviors as a purely strategic challenge; crafting counter measures that, unencumbered by extraneous emotions, would more effectively neutralize the very real threat that Fred’s behaviors represent to his perceived value to the department and boss, and to his ability to do his job well.

Taking this approach is, needless to say, difficult. When we are attacked, our brain is wired to respond quickly, powerfully, and in kind. And once our fight or flight response is activated, it is exceedingly difficult to turn off. But to have mastery over our choices, we need to cultivate the ability to emotionally engage only in those situations where it is appropriate. And, while this is a difficult task, it is worth the effort. Ultimately, we will feel better and be to operate more effectively in difficult, strategic environments.

Note, importantly, that this tough-minded approach to strategic relationships in no way compromises Radical Decency. Prudent boundary setting, a cautious and measured approach to emotional disclosure in unsafe environments, and effective counter-measures are indispensable aspects of decency to self. But with across the board decency as our highest priority, we also need to remember that these self-protective choices are not an excuse to dispense with other attributes of decency – respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice – in dealing with the Freds of the world.

So while Lou should not ignore Fred’s conduct or “make nice” with him – in the name of these values – he should strive to be civil, even in the face of Fred’s provocations; to avoid the temptation to demonize him; and ideally, understand and even empathize with whatever emotional demons are driving Fred’s behaviors. His larger goal should be fair treatment all the way around – to himself and to Fred –– and not revenge.


There are, obviously, many relationships that have both intimate and strategic dimensions: The friendships that flower in work environments, the co-parenting relationships that many former spouses share; the very different sort of workplaces that Radical Decency envisions; and so on. Hopefully, however, focusing on the very different challenges, presented by these twin poles of relationship, will support us in making choices in all of our relationships that are more loving, appropriately self-protective – and radically decent.

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.

Radical 39: A Radically Decent Business – Lessons Learned

Work dominates our lives. It consumes the best hours of the majority of our days – for most of our adult lives. It is also the place where the wildly overstated values that dominate our culture find their most unrestrained expression. For these reasons, it needs to be a key area of focus as we seek to operationalize Radical Decency.

Two factors make change in the workplace more immediately feasible than, say, change via the political process.

The first is its hierarchical structure. While the pressures of the competitive marketplace are great – a point discussed below – business owners have the power, if they chose, to implement Radical Decency within their organizations.

The second factor is, ironically, its amorality. In business, values are not a priority. What matters is profitability. If the standard ways of operating dictate a competitive dog-eat-dog approach, they will employ these tactics. Equally, however, if Radical Decency becomes the new norm, they will adopt that approach instead. Businesses won’t resist a different and better set of prevailing values, they will simply adjust.

With these thoughts in mind, one key goal I have in mind is to demonstrate that a radically decent business in not only possible but is, in fact, an entirely sound and profitable model. I discuss these ideas in greater detail in Reflection #15, “Social Justice – Focusing on Business.”

In the summer of 2005, I set out to create such a business, joining together with a group of “healers” in a practice that came to include psychotherapy, life coaching, chiropractic, message therapy, and financial planning. The goal was to create a truly holistic healing practice based on the principles of Radical Decency. See Reflection # 24, Holistic Healing – Embracing the Practical and the Radical.

The experiment lasted three years and, while the business ultimately closed, we learned a lot of valuable lessons in the process. A few of the more important lessons are discussed below.

Lesson #1: Be clear, specific, and persistent in describing what Radical Decency is and how it impacts every aspect of your business.

Why? Because if you don’t do this, many of the outsiders with whom you deal – customers, vendors, referral sources, investors, lenders – will fail to get the message. They will assume you are just like everyone else; just another business with a catchy marketing slogan on your marketing material and business card: “Progress is our most important product;” “the customer always comes first.” And, they will expect and encourage the sharp practices that are the marketplace’s norms.

This process – if it takes hold – contains two dangers. The first is a squandering of precious time and energy as you seek to work with people who, because Radical Decency is your unbending first priority, you should never have been engaged with in the first place.

The second danger is a more subtle process of seduction. In seeking to create a radically decent business, the greatest risk is not a cynical abandonment of the philosophy’s core values. It is, instead, an almost imperceptible, decision-by-decision retreat to the cultural norm.

Given the pressure to be profitable, saying no to “gray area” deals, strategies, and tactics can be excruciatingly difficult. And putting a brake on this process requires continual attention to the many ways in which a wall-to-wall commitment to Radical Decency affects your operations.

In business, the encompassing values that give the philosophy its juice affect, quite literally, everything – from marketing and pricing to the ways in which employees, vendors, competitors, neighbors and the environment are treated. If you are not attentive to the philosophy’s seemingly endless implications, the pull of business as usual practices will be too automatic and too strong to resist.

In our business, Radical Decency’s principles were explicitly written into our governance procedures and ultimately found their way into 11 principles for operating a small business. In addition, one regular staff meeting a month was devoted solely to the intricacies of its application and we worked hard to explicitly honor its principles in our other meetings as well. In retrospect, I wish we had also reinforced the message through a more detailed manual of principles and procedures, an in-depth orientation for new employees, and regular staff seminars and retreats.

Lesson #2: Be careful, discerning and patient as your build your staff and support team (accountants, attorneys, etc.).

Radical Decency sounds easy – and who could be against it? But its actual implementation in a business environment is very tricky. Because businesses have to be profitable, conventional financial success needs to be priority 1A, standing side-by-side in importance with – but clearly subordinate to – the goal of creating a radically decent enterprise. In other words, in that hypothetical 10-20% zone where Radical Decency and profit driven choices seem to conflict, the business’ underlying values need to clearly and decisively prevail.

When is comes to building a staff and support team, finding people who know how to make money in conventional ways is relatively easy. Equally, people can be found who put their values first.

But finding both together – people who combine a determination to make Radical Decency a priority and, in addition, are committed to the hard work and focus that a successful financial enterprise require – is much more difficult.

What we discovered was that traps exist in both directions. On the one side, competent people would arrive, saying all the right things about Radical Decency. But as we got into the nitty-gritty of working together, they were unable to break out of their conventional, business as usual modes of thinking.

The most poignant example was a key professional who struggled to trust that the division of profits would fairly reflect his economic contribution. In the midst of our negotiations with him, he was diagnosed with a condition that threatened his ability to practice his profession.

Seeking to be true to our principles, we gave him the right to re-tool in a less physically demanding healing modality – when the time came – and, in addition, agreed to pay him a percentage of the profits from the practice he’d built to that point in time. However, within months of reaching this agreement, he left, unable to the escape the belief – encouraged, very predictably, by his attorney – that we, his business partners, we were intent on taking advantage of him.

On the flip side were co-workers who warmly embraced Radical Decency but seemed to confuse decency with a lack of accountability on the productivity side of the ledger. The hard truth is that, when an employee’s non-workplace needs are acknowledged and accommodated, he, in turn, has a special responsibility to strike a workable balance between those needs and the business’ need to be profitable.

In retrospective, we were too forgiving on both sides of the equation. At times, we overlooked the warning signs with productive employees who lacked the requisite decency commitment. At other times, we allowed accountability to slide with well-intentioned people who simply lacked the commitment to priority 1A – the business’ economic success.

My counsel to people seeking to create radically decent businesses is to pick your collaborators with care and, if possible, test them out before committing. Then, pay attention to the evidence on both sides of the equation – and trust your gut:

  • Is this person actively interested in Radical Decency?
  • Does he read the material that discusses the philosophy with a lively interest?
  • Does he raise issues – on his own initiative – about how to apply it? Or does he effectively put the philosophy aside when he turns to the day-to-day practicalities of running the business?

And on the business side, don’t be seduced by the person’s philosophical compatibility. Remember to be discerning about his competence and willingness to work hard.

Lesson #3: Strive for profitability but don’t let fear of financial failure drive you.

Business is tough and reaching boldly for a better way to do it makes it tougher. So, when years of hard work are at risk, the temptation is to let go of your larger goals for the sake of economic survival. But business as usual is the easy option. If you can’t make a go of it financially, better to wrap things up and try again. Settling for just another job – just another business – is life’s booby prize.

In this respect I am proud of what we did. After 3 years of hard work, we closed our doors. But my abiding belief is that we grew from the experience and took invaluable lessons from it that each of us, in our own way, are applying in our new professional endeavors. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Reflection 35: Salaried Workers – Realities and Possibilities

Work is so important. For most of us, it takes up the best hours of the majority of our days. And most everything else gets organized around it.

When it comes to Radical Decency – being habitually decent to our selves, others, and the world – this is a big problem. Why? Because, at work, the culture’s predominant values – compete and win, dominate and control – are typically rehearsed with unrestrained virulence. There it sits, at the center of our lives, a constant impediment to our ability to give ourselves over to more decent ways of living.

The result? Most us end up squeezing the most profound expressions of our humanity – relationship and community, leisure and private passions, social justice and service – into the relative corners of our lives.

  • Time with our spouse and children is consigned to nights and weekends.
  • Social events tend to be isolated and episodic.
  • And little or no time is left over to tend to injustice and the suffering of others – even those within our immediate social and religious communities.

While no one is exempt from this unforgiving equation, it is, without question, much tougher on people with salaried and hourly jobs. In this Reflection, I address the special challenges these people face and offer a number of strategies to deal with them.


The problem for salaried and hourly workers begins with the most basic notions of freedom. While we seldom think of it in this way, they are, effectively, indentured servants. They work from 9 to 5 – or longer if the boss demands it – get an hour for lunch, 2 vacation weeks, and “x” number of sick days. That’s it. No choice.

Moreover, in contrast to 200 hundreds years ago – at least for white people – most salaried workers have no extended family or stable geographic homesteads and communities to fall back on. In other words, there is no way out. Work or die.

Compounding the situation is the highly authoritarian nature of the organizations for which they work. Supervisors control what they work on, with whom they work, and the environments in which they work. And so long as they are making money for the company and are not causing problems for their bosses, supervisors’ powers are virtually unchecked.

There was a time when workers had some ability to fight back. But over the last few decades, the laws protecting workers’ rights have steadily eroded. Today, most unions and human resource departments – if they exist at all – are paper tigers, with little or no power to enforce effective solutions. Too often, the net effect of raising a grievance is this: No relief, plus the animus of your boss. The result? Most workers suffer in silence.

Since all that really matters in business is profitability, companies do actually support good bosses – so long as they are making money. The problem, however, is that this good boss will eventually move on, or change his or her ways when shrinking profits demand a more bottom line oriented approach. And because decency is never a high priority, the next boss is unlikely to be similarly enlightened.

Recognizing that fortuitous exceptions can actually exist, it makes sense to look for a job with a good boss – and to enjoy it while it lasts. But be very cautious in assuming that “this department” or “that company” is a permanent exception to the rule. Bad bosses are not bad luck. They are the expectable result of an authoritarian business culture, dominated by the ethos of compete and win, dominate and control.


What follows is a discussion of key initiatives that individual workers can take, based on principles of Radical Decency, to deal with these realities.

Note, importantly, that the interpersonal approaches I discuss are only one piece of the puzzle. A true transformation of the workplace will also require initiatives that allow workers to collectively assert their rights more effectively.

On the other hand, the strategies discussed below are not pallid substitutes, to be pursued only in the absence of a revitalized workers’ movement. To the contrary, lasting change can never occur – in the workplace or in any other area of living – unless we also challenge and change the authoritarian ways of operating that are so pervasive in our one-on-one relationships.


As Philip Lichtenberg explains, the characteristic dynamic in an authoritarian relationship is for the dominant party to project his anxiety, frustrations, etc. onto the subordinate. So, for example, the boss – getting ready for a meeting – barks at his assistant, “where’s the file,” and the subordinate, internalizing the boss’s anxiety, scurries to find it.

The key to creating a different and better interpersonal environment at work is to consistently act in ways that subvert this dynamic.

This is no easy task. Authoritarian interactions are deeply intertwined with our fight or flight brain, and that part of our brain is highly infectious. The uncomfortable truth is that we are biologically wired to respond to a bullying boss with anger (fight) or sullen silence (flight); behaviors that only encourage a further round of bullying by the boss. In other words, just as it is exquisitely difficult for a spouse to remain calm and composed in the face of his or her partner’s attack, so too at work.

The starting place, if we hope to undo this pattern, is to consistently cultivate mutual and authentic contact – the antithesis of the workplace’s fight or flight mindset. Dealing with the substance of the boss’ “requests” calmly, and with curiosity and respect, we put ourselves in the best possible position to interrupt and subvert the biologically engrained rhythm of reaction/counter-reaction that fight or flight sets up.

Unfortunately, this is no magic pill. Even when we fully commit ourselves to this approach, we cannot expect a magical transformation. As Steven Stosny points out, a nonreactive response reduces the likelihood of further attack – but only from 98% to 70%.

Still, it’s the best available option. Consistently applied, it offers the best hope for turning you into “that” person in the office who, inexplicably, is spared the boss’ most unpleasant excesses.

It is also important to note that, as challenging as this step is, it is only step one in the process. Fully transforming your relationship with the boss into one based on trust, ease and shared respect requires mutuality. In other words, you need to work toward an environment where you can express your legitimate needs and desires as well.

Meaningful progress toward this second goal is a tricky and uncertain proposition. It is likely to depend on your ability to establish yourself as a competent and valued employee and, therefore, as someone whose needs matter. It is also greatly facilitated by success in implementing step one: By your boss’ growing perception of you as an empowered listener.

Even with all of this in place, however, the only reliable way to get reciprocal respect from your boss is to ask for it. At some point, you need to say: I need “x” to do my job more effectively – or, I am not getting the support I need from your executive assistant – or, I need to take Thursday afternoon off to attend to a personal matter.

In asking, you need to be clear and assertive. If you need to be home by 6, the message the boss can’t be: I need this – unless it really bothers you. If your request is equivocal, the boss, steeped in authoritarian entitlement, is primed to ignore it.

In addition, having established this ground rule, act on it. If you ask for something, get it and, then, continually make exceptions – to please the boss or out of fear irritating him – you can be sure that his commitment to it will recede as well.


A final note: The strategies I describe operate in a deeply authoritarian environment. Even if they are employed with impeccable discretion and judgment, nothing may change. But that does not mean the effort shouldn’t be made. Hopefully, as a wide variety of complementary change initiatives take hold, a deeper shift will occur.

And, without regard to their ultimate effectiveness, always remember this: More decent choices grow the best part of our humanity and are, therefore, their own reward.

Reflection 34: Triumphal Business and the Demise of Checks and Balances

In the early 1980s, I was an attorney deeply immersed in the EPIC bankruptcy.

Here’s what happened: A smart promoter bought undervalued model homes in housing developments, mortgaged them, and sold the mortgages in bulk to Savings and Loans, then the country’s prime originators of mortgages. The S&Ls loved his product. Instead of accumulating mortgages one by one, they could now close 50 or 100 in an afternoon.

The problem with this plan? Since the mortgages were immediately resold, the promoter had no financial stake in how the loans actually performed. And because his product was so popular, keeping up with demand became a huge challenge. So, before long, he was selling junk – loans secured by mortgages far in excess of the underlying properties’ values. But the S&Ls didn’t care. EPIC was, after all, a “hot” company, run by a “genius” and potential losses, if any, were years down the road. In addition, since “everyone was doing it,” the pressure was on not to be left behind – leaving other S&Ls to report this impressive growth on their financial statements.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. Back in the 1980s, the S&L crisis – of which EPIC was a part – was a very big deal; a bail out that ultimately cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But we learned nothing. 25 years later, the exact same thing happened again. Promoters – making obscene amounts of money from front-end fees, and having no stake in the quality of the underlying product – became the prime drivers of the mortgage industry. Only this time, the promoters included the country’s largest investment banking firms and when the bubble burst, in 2008, it froze up the world’s financial system, shaking it to the core. This time, the losses were in the trillions.

And the trend continues. Very little by way of structural reform has come out of the 2008 housing crisis, and no effort has been made to hold the Goldman, Sachs’ of the world – or their senior executives – criminally accountable. Is any reasonably sober observer willing to bet it won’t happen again?


The essence of political power is the ability to aggregate large amounts of money and to command large numbers of people to do your bidding. At the time of the founding fathers, the primary, taken-for-granted source of this sort of power was governmental. Thus, they structured a system, based on separation of powers and checks and balances, to prevent excessive governmental power from flowing into the hands of one or a small group of people.

Given their focus on governmental power, the system has worked well. For over 200 years we have avoided a dangerous accumulation of power in the hands of a President, Congress, or (less plausibly) the courts. But that system was crafted in a very different world.

Since then, and especially in the last 50 years, technological advances have created a revolution in communications and in our ability to analyze and manage vast amounts of complex material. That, in turn, has created hitherto unimaginable opportunities for businesses to shift enormous sums of money from one investment to another with extraordinary speed, and to create and keep track of ever more intricate and far-flung investment strategies.

As a result, the possibilities for accumulating wealth, by managing money, have exploded. Today’s most visible moguls – exemplified by Warren Buffett and Goldman Sachs – focus, not on production and profitability, but on investment strategy and rate of return. They move seamlessly into and out of industries based solely on return; aggressively investing in the mortgage business at the height of the bubble, moving on – to new markets and new opportunities – when it burst.

Given these new realities, businesses can now marshal the tools of power to an extent that would have been unthinkable to the founding fathers. So, while arbitrary and destructive governmental power is still a threat, it is no longer the sole source of danger.


Through the use of its now, almost unimaginably large aggregations of capital, the business sector has, in the last half century, greatly expanded its power over our lives. How has it done this? Not through coercion – the traditional way in which government exercises its power – but by buying off virtually every segment of society that could meaningfully limit its power.

The most visible example is, of course, government. While there is a clear philosophical divide between the two major parties, the deeper reality is that they are both fueled by business contributions.

So, on the really make or break issues – such as meaningful regulation of business – the real divide is between largely symbolic programs, the Democratic approach, and no regulation at all. And, lest pressure for change come from other sources, our culture is organized so that almost every college, media outlet, and religious organization of any size is heavily dependent on investments, loans, and/or contributions from businesses and people who business made wealthy.

As one of my law professors noted, “business is not vicious, it’s just avaricious.” But the fact that its goals are not explicitly immoral does not mean that its actions are benign. Business’ priority – pursued with singular focus – is on policies that allow it to pursue its amoral goal of ever expanding profits with impunity: Tax breaks and public subsidies; programs that lead to lucrative government contracts; a weakening of any sort of regulatory control.

The result? The last 40 years has witnessed a steady reduction in support for social safety net programs, the better to fund tax savings that disproportionately favor businesses and the wealthy. It has also witnessed an historic cutting back, or outright repeal, of many of the system’s most important checks and balances on business, including:

  • Antitrust laws;
  • Usury laws (outlawing excessive interest rates);
  • Glass-Steagall (regulating banks/limiting opportunities for self-dealing);
  • Class action lawsuits;
  • Bankruptcy protection for individual debtors.

And, efforts are ongoing to similarly emasculate personal injury lawsuits, environmental laws, and programs that protect the rights of employees.

These policy shifts have caused incalculable harm:

  • The savings of millions have been devastated as banks demand repayment of debt only made possible, to begin with, by the exploitative, regulation free environment they worked so tirelessly to create.
  • Insurance companies – regulated in theory only – gouge customers for premiums and deny valid claims.
  • Credit card companies arbitrarily raise interest rates, on exemplary customers, to levels that a generation ago would have been subject to criminal and civil sanction.

The list of abuses goes on and on.

Note that, utterly failing to deal with this new power reality means that, as a culture, we are now living in a world where there is a complete disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. We continue to trumpet our system of governance as one of mankind’s great triumphs. And yet, we have allowed the very essence of that system – checks and balances to prevent the accumulation of undue power – to be totally gutted.


To me, the most important take away from this chilling state of affairs is that, while current, mainstream strategies for making things better – elections, lobbying for more enlightened laws, efforts of nonprofits and service organizations – are necessary and helpful, they are, in the end, inadequate.

A more robust response?

First, we need to reframe the problem, something I attempt to do, in part, in this Reflection.

In addition, we need to name, again and again, things that currently go unnamed, such as the complicity of media, the religious establishment, academia and, of course, both Democrats and Republicans.

Finally, we need to develop new strategies for change.

Where to start? By working to replace compete and win, dominate and control – the amoral values, predominant in business and the culture at large –– with a counter set of values that can systematically reorient our outlook and offer fresh perspectives on where and how to push for change.

This last goal is a primary motive force in the development of Radical Decency. In other Reflections, I discuss certain ideas that have emerged from a systematic thinking through of this approach, ideas that could be part of new, more effective change strategy:

  • Building a counter-model of business based on Radical Decency (Reflection #15 Social Justice – Focusing on Business; Reflection #43 Radical Decency in Business – A Fairy Tale; Reflection #39 A Radically Decent Business – Lessons Learned);
  • Making this values shift an enduring priority at the center of our lives – that is, in our most intimate relationships – by tending to our patriarchal ways in all of their manifestations (Reflection #61 Women, Boundaries, and Sex; Reflection #72 Men’s Moment(s) of Truth; Reflection #69 Moving Beyond Patriarchy)
  • Creating and nurturing values based communities, the fertile soil out of which social movements can grow (Reflection #29 Losing/Revitalizing Our Communal Roots);
  • Creating deeper, more enduring, and diverse collaborative alliances with like-minded people (Reflection #7 Gathering in the Good Guys; Reflection #45 Re-visioning Social Change Work);

Our wisdom – and moral and emotional stamina – are sorely tested when we seek to make a more meaningful contribution to a more just, equitable, and decent world. But, the alternative – getting by in the world as it is – is, for most of us, an anxiety provoking, spirit draining way of living. Radical Decency is – as I am fond of saying – not just the right thing to do. It is also the surest pathway to a more vibrant and fulfilling life.

Reflection 23: Radical Decency in Business – The Nitty-Gritty

Two key perspectives inform my thinking about Radical Decency:

  1. Because work is the most powerful driver of the values that predominate in our culture, it is also the best point of leverage for change. If we can create new, habitual ways of operating at work, we will dramatically increase the likelihood of change in all areas of living; and
  1. The greatest challenges – and greatest rewards – of Radical Decency emerge in the nitty-gritty details of its application.

This Reflection seeks to demonstrate the power of these perspectives using examples drawn from the legal business, where I spent 25 years of my career.


Several years ago, a friend and large law firm partner described the following scenario. He and his partners were reviewing their budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In doing so, the managing partner revealed proposed across-the-board cuts to healthcare benefits. As a partner making more than $300,000 a year, these cuts were manageable for my friend. However, he was concerned about its effect on the support staff, people such as his secretary who made $32,000 a year.

The managing partner was quick to acknowledge the legitimacy of my friend’s concern but then made the following points: A key component of the firm’s continuing prosperity was its ability to attract experienced attorneys and practice groups and that, in turn, was dependent upon maintaining its “per partner profits;” a key industry statistic for measuring profitability. Absent a cut in benefits, the firm’s ranking in this vital area would drop from 7th to 11th in its geographic region.

The managing partner also acknowledged that the firm could, perhaps, hold the line on benefit cuts in the next year or two. But, then, the “inevitable” cuts would be more draconic and, hence, more disruptive in the lives of the support staff.

The cuts were made.

This, to me, is the truest face of our indecent culture. Innumerable meetings, quietly taking place in comfortable offices, where “reasonable” people “reluctantly” make “inevitable” choices because they “have to.” Their unbridled greed and ambition – “we ALWAYS need to make more money” – is almost never acknowledged. And the effect of their choices on the less privileged – even those sitting right outside their offices – is barely a blip on their radar screens.


One of the geniuses of the predominant culture is its sheer pervasiveness. It is reinforced by a seemingly endless array of structural impediments and values-based assumptions that, cumulatively, make meaningful change seem like an impossible, pie-in-the sky dream. In the situation just described, for example, the very structure of the law firm made resistance close to impossible.

Most partners, my friend included, are wildly busy tending to matters that have nothing to do with firm management. Growing and maintaining their practices, in a highly competitive environment, is more than a full time job.

So the managing partner, backed by the firm’s financial people, went into the budgeting process knowing so much more than a rank and file partner (such as my friend). He also had all the firm’s organizational momentum behind him and, if he was any good at his job, had lined up support from the firm’s most powerful partners before the meeting ever took place.

In addition, any other outcome would have flown in the face of a whole series of unspoken assumptions: Generating as much profit as possible for the firm’s partner/owners is the unquestioned priority; differences in income between partners and nonprofessionals has no meaningful ethical overtones; the only way to remain competitive with a crucial constituency – lateral hires – is to be highly profitable; and so on.


The hopeful thought I want to offer is this: A very different, radically decent approach to business is possible – even the legal profession! And importantly, it can be done in ways that maintain and, perhaps, even enhance a firm’s economic viability.

But if a firm takes an ad hoc approach to change – an extra employee benefit here, a pro bono project there – meaningful and lasting change will never take place. The problem? This approach leaves the firm’s usual ways of doing business intact and unchallenged. Then, when an inevitable down year hits, its experiment in being a little more decent will be quickly sacrificed to the god of 6 and 7 figure partner incomes.

What is needed instead is a systematic rethinking of the firm’s perspective on what it means to be successful and how to go about achieving it. Profitability is essential. The firm is, after all, an economic entity. But it needs to be priority 1A, just below and clearly subordinate to decency.

Adopting this approach would demand a re-thinking of many of the industry’s business-as-usual practices: partner, associate and staff compensation; billing; associate evaluations; and so on. It would also call into question some of taken for granted ways in which law is practiced.

But these shifts would not be a utopian exercise in self-immolation. To the contrary, since Radical Decency requires accountability for all of our choices, an insistence on a quality legal product, timely delivered, would be a given. Indeed, since there would no longer be an implicit exception for certain senior partners and rainmakers, the overall quality of the legal work might even be enhanced. Moreover, to maintain decency to self – as well as to others and the world – implementation would need to occur in ways, and at a pace, that maintained economic viability.

One key to success would be the firm’s systematic, forthright and public embrace of this more decent way of operating in word – and in deed. Our cynicism about business is profound. No one expects a business to be decent. So, the firm’s commitment would initially be seen as just another marketing ploy. However, implemented in this full-bore way, that initial reaction would shift over time.

Potential clients would begin to realize that the firm’s billing policies were transparent and fair. They would also find that, at this firm, there was no risk of over lawyering or of an overhyping of conflicts to drive up fees. In short, a competitive edge would emerge that – because it is so unusual – would more than offset the loss of clients who think they need an attack dog attorney.

Its effect on the quality of attorneys and support staff would also be dramatic. Fully committed to fair compensation and work/life balance, the firm would, in this way as well, carve out a meaningful competitive niche. Many extraordinary attorneys – some with considerable books of business – would be drawn to such a firm. And the firm would be positioned to build an extraordinarily capable and loyal support staff.

Note that many firms that say all the right things. “We put clients first.” “We are a friendly, family oriented place to work.” “We offer quality legal services at a fair price.”

So a key element in establishing credibility – and uniqueness – would be to express these values, not just in words, but also through concrete and visible systems. In billing, for example, the firm could diverge from hourly billing; a system that so transparently invites (indecent) manipulation at clients’ expense. It could instead estimate cost in advance; collect a premium if the job is done for a lesser amount; and charge a rate that is meaningfully reduced but still above cost, if the estimate is exceeded. This approach would decisively differentiate the firm from its competitors’ “nice words” about putting clients’ interests first.

Similarly, metrics used to evaluate associates could fully credit time spent on pro bono projects – or at an ailing parent’s bedside. No more “we encourage community involvement but still expect 2,000 billable hours;” a formulation that demands unreasonable sacrifices at home – or padded time sheets. Smart accountants could also develop metrics that factor in values beyond profitability; that no longer treat “personnel” and “plant and equipment” as undifferentiated expense items.

In these ways as well, the firm could forcefully make the case that it is truly different. And, equally important, it would embed these new values in its taken for granted structures – helping, in this way, to guard against the ever-present danger of sliding back to the industry’s business as usual ways of operating.


Is any of this easy? Of course not. But think of the possible pay-offs. How would your life look if you were able to maintain (and even enhance) your business’s economic viability and, at the same time, make it a place where your most decent and humane instincts – instead of being marginalized and suppressed – were a central focus? And since business is the primary driver of the indecent values that predominate in our culture, think of the impact if – noticing the success of businesses such as yours – this approach increasingly became business’ new norm?

Reflection 15: Social Justice — Focusing on Business

“Compete and win, dominate and control” – the values that predominate in our culture – are the driving force behind an endlessly complicated system that organizes our day-by-day choices and, thus, our lives. And, as I often point out, systems elaborate and perpetuate themselves. So it is no surprise that a vast array of perspectives and habitual ways of operating have embedded these values in virtually every aspect of our lives.

Teasing these processes out, in all their variety and subtlety, is an essential part of meaningful change work. Far more than we understand, our best efforts to create better lives and a better world are defeated by these assumed and unexamined perspectives on living.

This Reflection deals with one example: Our taken for granted ways of viewing social justice and social change work.


In our generally accepted, mainstream definition of social justice, our efforts are directed toward bringing greater equity and justice into the lives of economically and socially disenfranchised people. While this definition seems sensible, it is, in reality, a mechanism for guiding otherwise well-intentioned people away from any serious investment in social change work.

Here’s how the process works.

Defining social justice in this way, we are invited into two areas of activity. One option – the global approach – is to tackle one of the big issues: Poverty, war, environmental degradation.

But, given the size of these issues, it is not an effective call to action. Who do we call? What meeting do we go to go? – to make even the smallest perceptible dent in world hunger. Lacking any but the most quixotic of answers, we stifle our better instincts and get back to the more pressing business of getting by in the world as it is.

The other option that this definition invites – the worm’s eye view – is to do service work: Volunteer work at Habitat for Humanity or a local shelter. Here too, however, we quickly see the insignificance of our contribution. Given the macro forces that drive our society, we could work at the shelter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the rest of our lives, and things will continue to deteriorate. Once again, we are offered option that invites discouragement and inaction.

And there is a deeper problem with this approach.

While good things certainly happen when we pursue social justice in these culturally sanctioned ways, the unfortunate truth is that, channeled into these areas of activity, we wind up focusing on the consequences of our inhumane culture – instead of on the culture itself. It’s as though, with a pack of wolfs running loose, we focus all of our efforts on patching up the wounds of the injured, making no effort to hunt and kill the pack.

And this, of course, is our reality. We are being attacked, every day, by an enormous, culturally sanctioned pack of ravenous wolves – with most of us being both wolves (or wolf enablers) and their victims.

The overall effect? Our reform energies are marginalized, allowing on our status quo ways of operating to continue without effective challenge.


So what is the way out? We need to shift our strategic focus from the victims of the system to its perpetrators.

And who are these perpetrators? Virtually all of us since, when we are unflinchingly honest in our assessment of others – and of ourselves – we see extent to which the culture’s predominant mindsets push every one of us toward a life whose operative priorities are money, possessions, and power.

Given this reality, what is the better approach to social justice?

Imploring largely indifferent, success-oriented politicians and businesspeople to allocate more dollars for the poor is frustrating, to be sure. But the work is important, affecting the lives of millions, and needs to continue.

However, this should no longer be our highest priority. Instead, our initiatives need to be organized around, and grow out of a larger, overarching strategic frame that systematically challenges the culture’s routine, taken-for-granted habits of mind and ways of operating.

One by-product of this shift in strategic focus is that it avoids the global vs. worm’s eye dichotomy that plagues current social justice efforts. Instead, we will be able see, with far greater clarity, the extent to which endemic indecency – and its inevitable handmaiden, injustice – is, quite literally, everywhere. It dominates our politics, to be sure. But it is also deeply embedded in our day-to-day dealings as workers and consumers – and in our personal relationships as well.

Armed with this new perspective, every day, and virtually every encounter, will become an opportunity to make choices that model and promote a more humane set of values and, with it, greater equity and justice. In all that we do, we will be empowered make meaningful choices in support of a more decent life and world.


Systemic social justice efforts usually focus on politics. Against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we hope that an electorate indoctrinated into a competitive, every man for himself, dog eat dog approach to living will elect good-hearted politicians who will legislate on behalf of the disenfranchised.

When we focus on bad values as the root cause of injustice, however, the obvious becomes painfully clear: Politicians are not motivated by humane values and are not even leaders in any meaningful sense. They are instead polltakers and panderers who, in their zeal to get elected, unerringly reflect the culture’s predominant values.

So where should our organizing efforts be directed? Toward business, the epicenter and driving force behind the culture’s indecent values. Why? Because the wealth generated by business is the main driver of system. Not just politicians but also the media, mainstream churches, universities, and nonprofits – all are dependent on streams of financing and income that find their way back to business’ profits and accumulated capital.

Given this reality, imagine how different things would be if mainstream companies were seriously committed to quality products at a fair price, worker welfare, truth in marketing, socially conscious purchasing and investing, environmental prudence, and so on. Indeed, the simple truth is this: If the prevailing mindset in business shifts and, with it, its allocation of resources, the world in which we live will shift with it.


There are a number of factors that make a strategic initiative in the workplace feasible – exquisitely difficult but realistic nonetheless. To begin with, there are no elections. An empowered CEO can simply implement Radical Decency.

Moreover, the idea that a company can be fully committed to Radical Decency – and profitable – is entirely plausible. Such a company would be well positioned to attract a highly competent and fiercely loyal group of employees and customers. Imagine, for example, the market niche for the first credit card company that treats its customers fairly – doing away with 30 page single spaced contracts, usurious interest rates, and exorbitant penalties and late charges.

The business world also lends itself to serious organizing efforts in the service of Radical Decency. Meetings to discuss its implementation can occur at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and people will show up on time and treat their take-away assignments seriously. Why? Because it’s part of their jobs.

And while this last point may seem trivial point, it isn’t. Imagine – by way of contrast – how hard it would be to schedule a single meeting of neighbors, let alone a series of meetings, to take action against a local environmental hazard?


Needless to say, getting such a movement off the ground – even in individual companies – will present an enormous challenge. One problem is that many companies have cynically crafted marketing campaigns around decent sounding themes (“quality is our most important product;” “Nationwide is on your side”). For this reason, any initiative in this area is likely to be greeted with skepticism, both within the company and in the marketplace.

For this reason, the project can only succeed if decency is applied radically – at all times, in every context, and without exception. And that requires guts, patience and persistence. Absent such a commitment, mainstream competitive pressures and habits of mind will overwhelm the initiative, unraveling it piece by piece, exception by pragmatic exception:

  • Quality compromised for the sake of profitability;
  • Lawyers dictating how disputes are handled;
  • The reduction or elimination of humane worker benefits and environmental programs when (as is inevitable) a few less profitable quarters are strung together.


The initiative for this shift in approach could come from many sources – shareholder activists, unions, business schools, socially conscious investors. My immediate hope, however, is that a group of wise and determined business people – seeing these possibilities – will undertake the serious work of organizing for Radical Decency, in both their individual businesses and in the larger business community.

The chance of such an initiative actually transforming our mainstream ways of doing business is, of course, surpassingly small. So, as we take on this seemingly quixotic project, we need to keep two things in mind.

  1. The future is inherently uncertain. So who knows? This new model may actually catch on; and
  2. In every area of living in which it is embraced with focus and persistence, Radical Decency is its own reward. There is, quite simply, no a better way to spend our time and energy — or to run our businesses.