The 'Social Contract' We Live By.

Wherever you look there will be a social contract underpinning the culture that exists. The way people act, behave and even look is determined by it. We are all bound by a social contract either consciously or more commonly, unconsciously. Your relationship to the social contract you live in is determined by how far from the core you are. When you are close to the core, as with the Marines, everybody knows the conditions defined by the social contract. You literally live or die by them on the battlefield and the strength of the community is evidence of how committed all of the individuals are to that contract,  In the Marines you “sign up” consciously.

But look for a moment at a different culture, one where it would seem that people are victims of society but actually are living within a different social contract. In every city, there are no-go areas for the police, or areas where the homeless gather or people sleep out on the street. Even though the people living in these areas have not signed up to a social contract the conditions set by it have just as much power over their lives as the social contract the marines live and die by. 

Another example of a social contract is given here by Mike, following his experiences in India.  Mike wrote;

I tread lightly here as I can’t pretend to understand the social contract of India.  It seemed to me to be a social contract looking back on it.  At the time I didn’t have this distinction.  I saw a culture of enjoyment of life.  I talked with others who had been there who challenged me and others whose reactions were quite like mine.  

I find, to communicate what might be called the “Social Contract” there, I am almost universally challenged about how awful it was in how many ways.  But I talked with the people, observed them, saw there was a limit on how far they would go - and how soon they would recover.  

There was bedlam until the train pulled into the station.  Then they pushed a shoved but never showed anger.  There was no violence.  When the cars were filled, they formed a human chain until there was no more space.  Then they shared with others (strangers) food and blankets.  No violence was to be seen.  Just amicable interactions.

The elements of the social contract were to share, to be pleasant, to talk but never to be violent.  I saw peasants sleeping with heads against the road - families of them - with no protection.  There was no mess on the roads and sidewalks.  There was no such thing as litter.  Each scrap was picked up and traded with those who had a tiny bit of money to pay for whatever was picked up.  These same people were abundant on the edges of the shopping areas where people had more money.  They smiled all the time and shared when they could.

The way we see a social contract is that it is the fundamental foundation of a successful organisation. It is not political. It is a declaration that individuals sign up to and declare that they are “in”. If you chose to sign then you agree to be measured against the standards set within the contract.  If you choose not to sign then you are not in.

Social Contract is an expression of declaring "I do" or "I don't".  A social contract is out loud and certain or fuzzy and not clear.  Where it lives is with the former and not the latter.  The strength of the expression has to do with its clarity. Until an individual signs up they are in the ‘fuzzy not clear’ environment, they have not consciously chosen to be ‘in’, but they are also not out.

"Social Contract" is fast becoming a buzzword.  One part of its attraction is its seeming contradiction.  Social includes any number of people from small groups (clubs, teams, card games) to the largest extremes (countries, international associations, professional groups like accountants and lawyers).  The other part, the contract, includes only those with the strict boundaries and operations of legal terms.  The two parts seem to conflict. 

In combining the two terms - social and legal - we see legal as being binding on individuals while social is too large to be personal and too little specified to be certain.  Yet "social contract" is useful because it has fuzzy boundaries while maintaining a clear and strong core.  It is always open to interpretation.  That is, it engages both the individual and social mind.

The core is the platform that supports the entire enterprise and the fuzzy boundaries are the place for innovation, experimentation and surprise.  Together they provide the perfect conditions for producing results far beyond expectations

The social contract creates the conditions for cultural emergence - It does not guarantee that a specific culture will emerge. Individuals will or won’t sign up to the social contract, and that will in turn impact the resulting culture.

The natural way of being for human beings is to participate socially in a community, for the mutual exchange of values for the whole community. Being at work is one way of participating and contributing. The job, the role, or employment provides the conditions to enable the individual to contribute their best. These are the conditions for 'being at work'.

Work is a fundamental value of human life. Work has to become a human social value that contributes to our life, like eating well or healthily not just eating for fuel.

“If the nature of the work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body.  It nourishes and enlivens the higher (being) and urges (one) to produce the best (one) is capable of.  … It furnishes an excellent background for (one) to display one’s values and develop one’s personality.” J.C. Kumarappa, Indian philosopher and economist, 

In an organisation where the conditions exist to make this true, a culture of committed collaboration, contribution and innovation will exist. Where the conditions inhibit work being a human social value, it negatively contributes to the lives of all of the workforce AND management AND executives. The culture will be more toxic.

Do you see decision paralysis in your business? If you see people hedging their bets instead of committing to action, then the conditions of the workplace are responsible for the culture that exists. People are unconsciously following the existing social contract that leads to the prevailing conditions and the resulting culture.

We are not suggesting changing the culture because we can’t.  It’s an emergent phenomenon.  You can, however, design the conditions so that the desired culture has a better chance of emerging.

The right conditions will positively influence performance at all levels.  The resulting culture will show how successfully the organisation is operating and enable it to attract the best talent. This is often a quick win with dramatically positive results. Small changes to the working conditions can (and do) produce opportunities that existing command and control structures prevent. A new social contract at an organisational level is a powerful and effective influence.


Our new book exploring how the social contract can be applied successfully in organisations will be published in the new year.  Click here to find out more.


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