Girl, interrupted?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at a Conference Board conference on global risk, integrity, and reputation in New York City. My presentation was entitled “Redefining Risk, Integrity, and Reputation for the Post-Industrial Era.” The crux of the talk was that the words we use are embedded with meaning from the past. When you enter into an era that is qualitatively different in many respects, you must redefine the terms you’re using to fit the new times. Otherwise you can implicitly persist in activities that will actually work against you. I suspected this was likely the case with respect to these three terms.

My presentation was at 2:00 PM, but I was able to attend the presentations throughout the morning. I noted that the story of Justine Sacco was consistently held up as a success story for reputation management. Ms. Sacco is the 30 year old communications executive who in December 2013 tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” while boarding a plane to Cape Town, South Africa, and then found out upon her arrival that she had been fired. Folks at the conference lauded her company for being aware of the growing firestorm over her ill-advised tweet, and for taking immediate action to terminate her employment.

I found that analysis of events—and the praise of Ms. Sacco’s employer—somewhat unsatisfying. Sure, it’s a pretty stupid thing to tweet. Whether it’s “racist” or not is probably an open question. But in any event, is rapid firing of employees really the high-point of reputation management in the age of social media?

In my talk, I noted that “integrity” has for a long time been viewed in the sense of structural integrity, or alignment, as in the case of a bridge which has structural integrity because weight is distributed and the bridge does not fall down. This makes sense for an industrial era, in which companies were viewed as machines that needed to be productive and efficient in order to earn the economic returns demanded by those providing their financial capital.

In the post-industrial era, however, it is human—not financial—capital that is most critical to a company’s success. And let’s be more specific than “human capital,” since humans were required in the industrial era as well. In the post-industrial era, a company’s success will often depend on the cognitive and emotional capital of its employees.

To access the fullness of that cognitive and emotional capital, companies will need to define integrity not as structural alignment of mechanical parts but rather in the Jungian sense of wholeness, a state in which consciousness and the unconscious work together in harmony. When you give people a wide-open space to be creative, you never know what’s going to come out. It could be their persona (the Jungian term for the part of themselves that they want others to see) or it could be theirshadow (the part they want to keep hidden). The industrial era only needed (and wanted) the persona, but the post-industrial era needs both.

So I asked the group: Could they imagine a scenario where Ms. Sacco could haveremained employed and her employer could have turned this incident into an opportunity to demonstrate expertise in addressing employees’ use of social media (potentially leading to superior financial returns)? Remarkably, the group came up with a few ideas. For example, perhaps the company could have had Ms. Sacco spend 6 months working in Africa with children with AIDS and then share the experience with others.

As I told the group, this was just a thought experiment. Maybe Ms. Sacco needed to be fired. Sometimes people need to be held accountable, and that can mean permanent exclusion from the group. Maybe her tweet really does reflect underlying values that are fundamentally at odds with those of her employer. But I suspect not. She probably just did something stupid. I’ve done stupid stuff. Many of the people at the risk conference in New York admitted having done stupid stuff too—some of it even online.

The larger point here, however, is that our definition of integrity—as well as what we expect from our employees as a result—needs to change from the structural notion that emerged in the industrial era to something that creates the space for the whole-person creativity required for success in the post-industrial era. We all have a shadow, and sometimes it comes out in ways we really don’t like. But companies will have to accept that if they want access to everything their employees have to offer.