Most businesses are structured like pyramids. People and resources are used to benefit those at the top who set policy to achieve maximum profit. This narrow focus, mandated in publicly held companies by the law of our land, has turned our basic human need for exchange into a destructive pattern.
“Consumers” slowly undermine their own wellbeing by supporting companies that function within local economies as neo-colonial entities. Money, disconnected from a place, is exported up to shareholders, leading to the fragmentation of economy and community. A few people at the top of the pyramid get very rich while we buy ten-dollar jeans at Wal-Mart and wonder where the money is for local schools.
Triangles – which make up pyramids – serve a vital function in nature (look at the tips of feathers, shark fins, waves or teeth). Triangles are about movement toward goals. But in nature, this triangular movement nurtures relationships to find a greater balance based on radical equality and interdependence: the circle.
Over the last eleven years, my wife and I have attempted to run our company based on the circle wisdom teachings of indigenous elders. We knew nothing about business when we started but we saw how it is that everything around us is alive and has a right to exist. Like fools, we sought to bring this understanding into the business world.
We noticed how decisions are based on a hierarchy of values that is often determined by societal patterns. A pyramidal business model becomes a story that is often constellated around war, competition and hierarchy. A circle-based approach, however, requires considering community and the right of all that is to exist in the center of one’s decision making. One asks, is my action going to strengthen our interdependence or not?
Over time, we came up with this definition of purpose for a business based on circle wisdom to test our decision making processes:
The purpose of a circle-based business is to benefit community through relationships that are nurtured by fair and equitable exchange. Every person inside and outside of the business is viewed as equal in their humanity.
Our initial attempt to make our company circle-based brought contradictory results. Before I went into business I was a service volunteer, monk and high school teacher. Focus on money and numbers were both corrosive and grounding to my idealism, yet as I put my house on the card table and watched our company plummet into debt, I saw how it was entirely necessary. We could not actualize many of our values because we were just trying (praying) to forge relationships (sales) that would allow us to pay the next bill.
Yet we saw how nature’s circles build prosperity and abundance. The foundation of any circle-based business is generosity toward employees. If one person takes more than their share out of the circle, you begin to become a pyramid. As soon as we began to feel some stability, we were able to implement a strong benefit package and pay ourselves.
Compensation is only one part of being circle-based. You also have to attend to how the energy flows around an organization. Ten employees means one hundred and twenty possible relationships.
A few years ago we learned how just one unhealthy, platonic relationship between two employees can create a situation that painfully impacts the entire organization. Emotional and spiritual well being of everyone in the circle viewed equally in their humanity requires a lot of vigilance and skill from all who form the company.
Circle-based business is a paradigm shift for everyone involved. The employee says, “You’re the boss,” which is correct. But a circle is strengthened by everyone taking responsibility for their arc. We avoid top-down unilateral decisions, and empower everyone to hold their own arc so that we can focus, as business leaders responsible for the flow of the whole, on prosperity for everyone.
Studies in the Harvard Business Review1 back the notion of how attending to the well being of employees is a best business practice. Increased commitment from employees who love their job can lead to a 57% increase in an employees’ discretionary effort, a 20% increase in individual productivity and an 87% reduction in the desire to leave. (We’ve had three people quit in ten years.) The greatest indicator of business success is repeat business that comes from customer satisfaction. The greatest indicator of customer satisfaction is employee investment.
From a strong inner company circle, the circle-based businesses must also serve the greater Circle of Life, which is where this model becomes even more challenging.
Despite my efforts to be as green as we can, my business has a negative impact simply because our industry is not yet adequately supported by a market and supply chain. I finally have a supplier for recycled gold and silver, but can I afford to print our catalog on recycled paper when it doubles our cost? Not this year.
Since it costs more money to run a business in a way that serves the greatest good, the circle-based approach is ultimately a “spiritual” endeavor. Survival (ideally prosperity…) must be weighed against fair and equitable exchange. One lives in ethical gray areas. Finding the balance between money, humanity and sustainability becomes a kind of koan. Yet breaking free of current internal and external structures that no longer serve the common good can free a huge amount of human spiritual potential.
Ultimately, economy is either leading toward supportive interconnection, or toward our continued fragmentation. If we are to survive, we must begin to see how giving back is the only way to generating prosperity and abundance for all.