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The Moral Imperative of Corporate Social Responsibility: From Tokenism to Tangible Impact

It was a sweltering day in the middle of February, and I found myself sitting in the boardroom of a large corporation, surrounded by executives making small talk. I’ve seen my fair share of boardrooms, and the energy is either flat, negative or electric. This one had a kind of nervous energy. It was thick with tension and unease, and I could sense that something big was on the horizon.

The topic of discussion was corporate social responsibility, or CSR, and the execs were debating how best to ensure that their organisation operated ethically and responsibly, while still meeting its obligations to society. It was a hot-button issue, one that had been thrust into the spotlight in recent years due to a number of high-profile scandals and controversies. I love business ethics and I want to do more of it, so I wanted to make a big impact and do a great job in the hope it would lead to more work.

As I listened to the small talk, ideas were being thrown around early. Great – some interest in finding a solution. The problem was, they weren’t real solutions. Just ticking a box with token actions. I couldn’t help but think about the impact of tokenism on employee engagement. We’ve all seen it before – companies that make a big show of diversity and inclusion and ethical responsibility, but fail to take any meaningful action to support those values. It’s a form of empty virtue signalling that can actually have the opposite effect, demotivating employees and eroding trust. But bad ideas from executives are great. I love bad ideas. Bad ideas are always better than no ideas because bad ideas means a willingness to get a right, and that’s something I can work with. But tokenism wasn’t going to cut it.

As an organisational neuroscientist, I know that tokenism can have a negative impact on employee engagement and motivation. When employees perceive that their organisation’s efforts are just for show, they are less likely to feel a sense of  engagement in their work. This is because the brain’s social cognition networks are responsible for processing social information and regulating social behaviour, and when employees feel like actions are tokenised, these networks can become dysregulated.

It’s important to move beyond tokenism and towards meaningful action that aligns with an organisation’s values and societal obligations. That means if you’re an oil company, your CSR should be aligned to your mission and vision and not just a political agenda. Find the right place to do good and it adds up. Find the wrong place, and it takes off points.

It was time to get started so I stood and spoke up, my voice cutting through the small talk. “I think we need to focus on ethical leadership if we want to build a culture of trust and cooperation. But I don’t just mean you folks. I mean ethical leadership in every team, at every level of the business. Research has shown that ethical leadership behaviours, such as fairness, honesty, and respect, are associated with increased trust and collaboration among employees. It’s not enough to just talk about these values – we need to live them. Before we show corporate responsibility outside of the organisation, we need to live and breathe it inside the organisation.”

The executives nodded, but I could sense a certain amount of scepticism in the air. It was as if they didn’t quite believe that ethical leadership could have a tangible impact on their bottom line. That’s where the neuroscience comes in.

Ethical leadership behaviours, such as fairness, honesty, and respect, activate the brain’s social cognition networks, which are responsible for processing social information and regulating social behaviour. These neural networks include the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the insula, and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which are involved in empathetic responses, social reward processing, and mentalising or the ability to attribute mental states to others.

When individuals experience fair and ethical treatment, these social cognition networks are activated, leading to positive affective responses, such as increased trust and cooperation. On the other hand, when individuals experience unfair or unethical treatment, these networks are inhibited, leading to negative affective responses, such as decreased trust and cooperation.

We use brain imaging techniques, such as quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG), to measure the neural correlates of these affective responses and identify strategies to foster ethical leadership behaviours that promote positive social cognition and behaviour. By developing a better understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying ethical leadership and social behaviour, organisations can develop targeted interventions and training programs to build a culture of trust and collaboration. Once we get that right, we can then move outside of the organisation and start to have an impact on our local and global community through some real tangible CSR strategies.

I could see the gears turning in the executives’ minds as they processed my words. It was as if a light had been switched on, and they suddenly realised the moral imperative of corporate social responsibility. They knew they couldn’t just pay lip service to these values – they had to take real action, and make a tangible impact on the world around them.

A lot of it starts with the neuroscience of moral decision-making. By understanding how the brain processes information and evaluates moral dilemmas, leaders can make better decisions that align with their organisation’s values and societal obligations. It’s not just about doing the right thing – it’s about doing the smart thing.

And these are things that organisations can help to make easier for their people. People are more likely to make ethical decisions when they feel a sense of personal responsibility and accountability. By designing organisational structures and systems that promote personal responsibility and accountability, leaders can encourage employees to make ethical decisions that align with the organization’s values and societal obligations.

In addition, understanding the neural processes involved in moral decision-making can also help leaders recognise and address biases that may impact ethical decision-making.

As I left the boardroom that day, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of optimism. I had witnessed a group of executives move from tokenism to tangible impact, from empty virtue signalling to ethical leadership.

In the end, it all comes down to our moral obligation to society. We have a responsibility to do what’s right, not just what’s expedient or profitable. We can make informed decisions that have a positive impact on the world around us. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but it’s one that we must all strive to meet.

Until next time keep exploring, keep questioning and keep that pre-frontal cortex firing.

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